Sunday, January 11, 2009
Chapter Ten - The Leatherman's Jounal, September 27, 1869
Before long, I found that I would not be able to keep myself in cotton pants without begging money for the cloth.
And the leather coat has proven so resilient that I decided to fashion a pair of trousers in the same way. A hat followed shortly.
This was also the time when I found my wanderings to be taking a rather regular course. I am, I will admit, a man of habit.
The angel and the devil have found me. I thought I had left them in Lyon.
They accompany me once again. But Beliel, the devil’s messenger, makes himself known most frequently.
"Useless," he will whisper from the shadows of the forest. "Pitiable," he will his through the fog. "A walking disease," he says when I hear his footsteps near behind.
While the angel Adoneil, calms me. "Walk," he says. "Walk, and ye shall be cleansed."
And I walk.
I am, again, a man of leather as I was a man of leather.
My father's scent hangs about me, each day, as I walk, and I find, with my suit, unique as it is, that I gain the attention of nearly everyone I pass. Suddenly I am no longer just another tramp. I have become old man leather. I’ve heard it on the lips of more than one.
Old, eh? Quite a distinction for a thirty-two year old.
Yesterday I walked through a town where I had passed about a month ago. Last month the children and dogs seemed to single me out from the other tramps. I noticed others pointing and speaking amongst themselves.
"Old man leather," it was the voice of a child of about ten.
I turned and looked at him.
"Maw wants to know if you'd eat a sandwich."
He pointed to a great white house with a woman standing in the doorway. I followed him up the walk and to the door. The woman held out a thick plate stacked high with bread, ham and hard cheese. I took the plate without emotion. I nodded.
I must keep the agreement I made with myself and my demons. A smile is as much language as word. I will walk through this world without acquaintance.
I sat on a bench in the yard and began to eat. It was more than a day since my last meal. I finished the entire plate in minutes, only stopping once to look up at the door where the boy and the women, and now two more children stood to watch me eat.
They didn't provided me anything to drink, and the salty ham and cheese, and the ten miles I walked this parched my aching throat. I turned to the door, and almost before I could hold an imaginary cup to my lips the children were bouncing up and down, arms stretched in the air, hoping to be the one chosen to fetch me something to drink.
I waited minutes, and began to pick up my bag. Despite the flurry of interest, I felt I was forgotten, when through the door burst a blond-headed girl of about fifteen. She carried a pitcher, and when she bumped against the door, white beads of milk flew into the air.
Her speed didn't slake until she finally realized that she was going to have to deliver the milk to me. I looked toward her anxiously, thirsty.
She slowed from a run to a walk, and from a walk to a stuttering saunter. She turned once toward the door, unsure.
"Ma," she said pleadingly.
"Go, now. You're the one who wanted to fetch the milk."
The girl looked back at me. She was as frightened as the forest animals I encountered in my journeys. She turned again toward the door. Then back to me. The she made a determined change of mind and she strode confidently, if stiffly, toward me, pitcher held outstretched at the end of a trembling arm.
I held my expression the entire time. I did not want to scare her, but I did not want to betray myself, or allow the temptation towards conversation that even a single smile would allow.
When she was close enough, I lifted my hand, slowly, and took the pitcher from her. As soon as she was relieved of the burden she rushed back to the safety of the doorway, and her mother's skirts.
I put the pitcher to my lips and emptied it. I placed it on the bench next to the empty plate, put on my hat, pick up my satchel, nodded to the doorway, and I left.
As I reached the gate I looked down the long row of white pickets and saw two boys, undoubtedly part of this brood watching me intently. I reached for the gate and noticed two shiny copper pennies on the fence post.
I looked back down at the boys and saw them whisper excitedly.
I placed my hand over the pennies and picked them up. I looked at the boys and saw they were about to burst with excitement. I put the pennies in my pocket and continued down the fence row.
As I neared the end, and the boys, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a nickel and a tarnished ten cent piece. I kept the dime, but I deposited the nickel on the last fence post I passed.
It was perhaps the finest investment these two boys had ever made. I didn't turn back to see them revel in their good fortune, but I knew by the delighted squeals that they found the five cent piece.
Today, while walking on a road between Westport and Cos Cob, a stylish carriage wheeled in my direction. By now I was used to people looking at me, and talking about me, as if I were invisible. They seemed to marvel at my leather outfit, made of scraps shingled atop one another. My leather cap completed my uniform, and I usually carried a length of branch to ward off stray dogs and snakes.
The couple in the carriage, a man and women, as stylishly bedecked as the carriage itself, began motioning toward me at some distance. The day was overcast, and close, and for some reason the sound travelled a long distance.
"Old man leather," she said.
"One misty, moisty, morning," he laughed.
I looked up, for just a moment, and thought I saw Marie in the stranger's face. And since I never let my gaze rest long, I looked again, and Marie was gone, replaced by the stranger.
It's strange that I saw Marie in this woman. For I rarely saw Marie dressed in such fashion. Here was a woman of means, dressed in the high style of the day with a dress bought, perhaps in one of the salons of Manhattan, and worn here, in the country to impress the neighbors.
For much of the time that I knew her, Marie did not own such fine clothes. Until I bought them for her, and then, she took them reluctantly, and wore them with little pleasure.
The russets and crinolines felt false and uncomfortable to her, and she professed greater comfort in a cotton smock and wool apron.
For my eyes, she looked more beautiful in the clothes of her choice. They fit her beauty, and her strong, work-hewn character. She was her own woman, that much of her which wasn't devoted to her father, and she truly didn't need me to survive.
She told me so herself on more than one occasion.
I first saw her at market.
I was in the commerce district, in Lyon, at the noon hour. I just left the docks and was headed back toward my father's office. I stopped to buy an orange to eat along the way.
I remember arguing with the vendor over the price, and him finally selling me three for the price of one.
I spied Marie at the adjacent stall. She was holding a bolt of dyed cotton up to the sun, counting the weave. It looked like clothe of India to me. It was of a bold pattern, and she smiled. Her smile was like the sun in a clear summer sky to me.
She glanced over and saw me watching, and averted her eyes.
She dropped the cloth and hurried away.
By the time I made my way through the crowd, she was gone.
Though I had no business there, I visited that market, and that stall, each day for the next fortnight without spying that beautiful face again. I walked the streets around the market hoping to find her, but without luck. I carried on the search when my business would allow. But I did not see her until she walked into my life again.
Weeks passed, and I resigned myself to thinking that our chance encounter would never recur. That she was a visitor from a neighboring village, or a distant port. That she was a gypsy.
Then she walked into my father's leatherworks on the Lyon docks. I didn't see her at first. I was called by the foreman to come to talk to a man who sold metal scraps. I was told he had enough silver for us to produce a shipment of belts with silver buckles that we would export to England and America.
I walked to the front of the warehouse and easily spotted the scrap metal dealer. He was dirty and unkempt. He wore a ragged kerchief around his head, and his arms were filled with cuts and scratches.
"It's four years' work" he said to me, pointing at the small pile of bent and twisted metal that glowed with a dull gleam.
The scale read thirty-two pounds. It would earn him six hundred francs.
"Why haven't you sold this to a jeweler before?" I asked.
"Could not get my price," he answered.
"Could it be that some of this silver has been stolen from the very jewelers to whom it would have to be sold?"
"Monsieur, you accuse me falsely. This is waste I found in scrap heaps, in kitchen middens, in the shallow waters of the river’s edge."
"Thirty-two pounds is a great deal of lost silver even for a large town like Lyon."
"Take it or leave it," he said, gathering up the ends of the canvas rag he carried it in.
"We'll take it," it was my father's voice. He had crept up behind us and heard the dealings.
I said nothing to him there, or later. It would do me no good, but he knew how I felt about dealing with thieves, and I knew how he felt about making a profit.
He ordered one of our men to carry the silver to the melting pot, and called for his valise.
"What have you promised?" he asked me.
"Six hundred francs," the scrap dealer replied.
"As scrupulous as you are my son, you still know how to drive a bargain,” my father whispered to me.
My father left for other matters without taking his leave, and when the valise with the money in it arrived I began to count.
"Wait," the scrap dealer ordered. "I cannot count higher than twenty. You must allow me to get my daughter."
He ran into the alley and returned with the woman I had seen in the marketplace.
I could have counted him six times six hundred dollars that afternoon, and I would not have known. My thoughts, and my eyes were on his daughter. I handed her the money clumsily when I was through counting, just so I could feel the touch of her hand.
"Six hundred, there you are," I said to the old man.
"Merci," she said to me.
She didn't give me even a glance but set right to counting the francs. It took her a good five minutes to complete the task. I used every moment to investigate every angle of her face, the color of her eyes, the wisps of hair that fell randomly from the bundle she had gathered with a ribbon on top.
"It's all here," she said, looking at her father, and taking his arm to leave.
"Thank-you," the old man nodded to me.
She was not going to address me again, but gave me a brief glance, and a smile like a torch to the volatile fuel of my soul.
"Won't you have tea?" I asked just before they reached the door.
The man and the girl stopped, understandably puzzled at my request. Neither answered, and if I asked again, they would probably not admit to hearing my request clearly. But I asked again nonetheless.
"I'd like to seal our agreement with tea, and cakes."
I thought to myself that I must be going mad, inviting a thief and his beautiful daughter into the parlor for tea.
They looked again at each other, then the girl at me.
"Certainly," she said softly, and they followed me to the business parlor located in the back of the warehouse, on the second floor, overlooking the rivers where they intersected, and the docks.
"I must say, I've sealed an agreement with a glass of port, but never with tea," the old man grumbled.
"I have port," I replied, turning toward the liquor cabinet.
"Tea will be fine," the girl replied.
I called for the young kitchen girl to brew us a pot, indicated that our guest should sit in one of the oak chairs, and sat myself.
"You are Monsieur Bourglay?" the girl asked. "The younger Monsieur Bourglay," I answered. "My father owns this business. I've worked with him since I was sixteen. Ten years ago. Though I've been around the business since I was a child. And you are?"
"René Brilliard," the man answered. "Scrap dealer. This is my daughter Marie. She keeps the books. I deal in anything that is waste to some men, and treasure to others."
The girl seemed cowed in her father's presence. She smiled politely, and when we finished drinking the tea, she stood at her father's signal, and left.
"You're a fool to even think this way," my friend Etienne said to me when I told him about my beautiful visitor. "You are from a different class. Your father would disown you if he saw you with her. Her father would probably kill you. Perhaps you could have a discreet affair with her, yes..."
"My friend, this is love. I've not felt this way about any woman in my life. And I think she feels something for me."
"You told me she wouldn't speak to you."
"But her eyes told me everything I needed to know."
"You've always been beset by delusions, my good friend. You'll have to give up everything. Maybe your life. Is it worth it, Jules. There are thousands of pretty faces here in Lyon, all your equal. And if not here, Paris."
As he spoke he spread his arms indicating the dozens of women passing the cafe on the Rue de Ste. George. And he was right, these were beautiful women. I had met them. I had accompanied them to dances, and to dinner, to concerts and parties. None of them left me a memory of anything, even the next morning.
But this common flower, this Marie, would not flee my thoughts. She was there when I woke, and with me all day. And if I was lucky she inhabited my sleep too.
"I will make her part of my society."
"You will be a society of two," Etienne said as he finished the last of a wine and called to the waiter for another bottle.
"It will be all that we need."
"To live the life you lead, you will need every cent that your father gives you."
Etienne's cynicism had a way of penetrating through the fluff of an argument and striking the rusty knot of truth.
I gave his argument some hard thought. Indeed, I led a life that was to be envied. A large house, servants, fine clothes, carriages, the finest food in the parish. Though we were merchant class, my father was a very successful merchant, and was much wealthier than many of the old aristocratic families whose estates dotted the countryside.
But I was in love. I had not been in love before. Or if I had, I could not remember the feeling. Love made me feel brave. Love made me feel invincible. Love made me know that I could endure anything, even poverty.
"I can earn a living," I protested to my astute friend.
"A living and a life are two different things my friend. You see the workers on your floor every day. They earn a living. They support families. What do you pay them?"
"Four francs a week."
"Ah, you are right then. Of course. Why should I have doubted you. Jules, you most certainly could earn six francs a week."
"I know this business, I could make my fortune, as my father did."
"Competing against your father? Think my boy."
He was right. My father was a ruthless competitor. He was my father. He would not allow me to succeed. He would not allow me to compete. He would turn merchants against me. I wouldn't be able to turn to him for rawhides or finished wares. I might just as well try to sell ceramic pots. And when he heard about Marie, he wouldn’t allow me to exist in Lyon.
It did not take me long to discover where Marie lived, in a small loft, above a large open shed where her father kept most of his scrap. What struck me was the openess of the shed. Either the man trusted his neighbors, or he was right, scrap is merely scrap, except to those who have the eyes to behold it as treasure.
I didn't have the courage to walk up to the apartment and ask to see Marie. I don't know what kept me away. But I watched her from a distance for many days, standing for hours beneath the window, at the end of a day.
I was there so frequently that I began to be recognized by the neighbors. For some reason they called me Richard, to which I began to answer.
On one of these evenings, I stood so long that I became exhausted, and I sat on the step of a bakery and fell asleep. I was awakened in the morning by the baker who swept me off his step like a I was a malingerer.
I was brushing the dust and flour from my trousers when Marie emerged from the doorway next to the scrap heap. She walked toward me. Perhaps she had seen me standing all night long.
As she walked, she neither looked directly at me or away. I stood, frozen, not knowing whether to smile or speak, tip my hat or turn away. She had nearly passed me when I spoke up.
"Good morning," I said.
She turned, startled, I was sure.
"Why Monsieur Bourglay," she said. "You are a long way from the leathergoods."
"My work takes me to all parts of the city."
"I see. Well, good-day. I must get a bread for my father's coffee."
With that she brushed past me and into the bakery.
I didn't leave, but instead waited outside and tried to plot a strategy that would allow me more than a "good-day" with the lovely Marie.
She was out of the shop before I had arrived at any firm plan. I smiled at her, and she at me as she left the shop and headed back across the street. I followed and she turned when she saw me.
"Monsieur Bourglay," she smiled. " Is there something more I can do for you."
I gurgled, and bumbled a few syllables before a complete sentence would emerge.
"I wonder, if you would take a carriage ride with me to the country, come the weekend."
She smiled again, and look up at the apartment window. I looked as well, half expecting to see the scrap dealer frowning at my effrontery.
"I don't know what to say," she said. "I've not been to the country, and I don't expect I'd know what to do once I got there."
"Why there's nothing to do," I explained.
"Well, then, what is the point of going to the country, Monsieur."
"Why to relax. To be away from the strain of the city. To enjoy the trees, and the sun and the wind."
"Are these trees and sun and wind different then our own in Lyon?"
"Well, no," I answered tentatively.
"Then why drive all the way into the country to see them?"
"There are many more of them. Why the trees grow in……"
"Forests?" she laughed.
"Yes, forests. Of course, so obvious. Why there are so many
trees, you would not have time to see them all."
"Why not study the ones we have here more carefully. Appreciate their beauty."
"You misunderstand me. It's peaceful in the country, there are birds singing, and lambs bleating, and cows calling to be milked."
"It doesn't sound peaceful to me Monsieur Bourglay. And as I have work to do, even on the Lord's day, I must refuse a ride in the country with you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have coffee to prepare."
I lifted my hat, but she did not see me. Nor did she see the heart she had dashed. For it was as crushed as surely as if the horse and carriage that was now passing had trod on it.
I was not to see Marie for more than six months. And in those six months I tried my best to forget her, but I could not.
When I saw her again it was just as well.