Sunday, February 22, 2009
Chapter Sixteen - The Leatherman's Journal, September 4, 1874
I found Marie a year later. She remembered me as we passed in market. I had given up my search for her, but I knew her as soon as she placed her hand on my sleeve.
"Monsieur Bourglay," she said. "I am right, aren't I."
"Hello, sir. How are you? And your father?”
She had taken my breath away, and I gulped and stuttered to answer her simple enquiries, never once stopping to ask after her own health or that of her father's.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm keeping you from something. You are a very busy man."
She turned to leave and I found my voice.
"Marie," I croaked, humiliatingly, "Don't leave. I'd like to talk with you. May I buy you a coffee."
There was a small decrepit cafe at the end of the market where the merchant gathered, but rarely the customers. The merchants all seemed to smoke that foul-smelling turkish tabacco, and they drank coffee as dark and as thick as the tar I'd seen sailors place in the chinks of wood in a ship's hold where the light showed through.
She picked a table close to the bustle of people on the street. It was difficult to hear what she said. We ordered coffee and I forced her to have a croissant.
I drank my coffee down fast, it was bitter and strong, and then I began to interrogate her.
"Your father. He is well?"
She told me he was as well as could be expected, and when I asked her what that meant she just repeated that he was well.
I asked her more about her life and she told me that she kept house for her father in the mornings, worked with him at his trade in the afternoons, and cooked for him in the evenings. This had been her life since her mother died when she was a girl.
I asked her what she did for pleasure, and she told me that she had no time for anything as frivolous as pleasure. She spent much of her time on Sunday at church, and the rest at home preparing a huge meal, with her aunts, for her father, her uncles and her male cousins.
She asked me the time, and when she realized that we had been speaking for over an hour, she began to rise and excuse herself.
"May I see you again," I asked.
"I cannot prevent you from seeing me, unless I were to blind you."
"I don't mean for you to take me so literally."
"I am not taking you in any way, Monsieur Bourglay. I simply do not know what you mean by "seeing" me. If you mean visit, then yes you may visit me. If you mean to court me , monsieur, it is a matter that you must first take up with my father."
"And would you like me to court you?"
"I will leave that to my father."
With that she smiled, turned on the heel of her sturdy boot, and left.
I was perplexed, for I did not know if her words meant that she cared for me. I felt foolish. I was not unwise to the ways of women, but this one puzzled me. She was playing a game of bouree with my heart, but using different rules from the ones I knew. Our happenstance cup of coffee had distracted me completely from the business I had planned for the morning. And once I abandoned it mentally, I found I was able to discard all other chores for the morning, and in its place, make a visit to Marie's father.
It took me more than one turn around the block of houses that made up a small industrial corner of the city, before I found the alley that led to the man's shop.
I entered a room fetid with hides. In one corner were the hides of cattle, in another beaver pelts, marked roughly with a sheet of paper, "Hats." In another corner were pelts of an animal that had been every shade of grey between black and white. I could not identify the animal. Behind another pile of glistening fox pelts stood the man I was looking for, Monsieur Brilliard. He looked much the same as I remembered.
"Bon matin, bonhomme." I said walking toward the man separating the great pile of pelts into two smaller piles.
"I'm sorry, have we met?" he said extending a hand.
"My name is Bourglay, my father has purchased pelts from you."
"Ah, Monsieur Bourglay. Welcome. Is it about more pelts? The leather is not so good at the moment, but I'm sure I could find if there were a shipment due into Lyon any day soon."
"No, I haven't come about leather. I've come to talk to you about your daughter."
I felt I was leading into the conversation smoothly, or so I thought, perhaps catching the man off-guard so that I might politic my way into the rest of the answer."
"You are not the first man, nor the first man of circumstance, who has come to me to ask permission to court my daughter."
"None have been successful?"
"Few have made it past me. Of those who have, my good Marie has not found long satisfaction. I would love for her to marry someone who understands her. Someone who is like her. Like me. A tradesman, a sailor, even a laborer. But she has had her head turned by the likes of you, and now will not settle for a commoner."
"Sir, I am a hard worker, and can offer you proof."
"I know you are a rich man, Monsieur Bourglay. That does not mean you are a hard worker. And hard work will not necessarily win the heart of my daughter.”
"What do you require?"
" I require, now that you mention it, that you be a hard worker. Wealth does not last forever, and I require that you know how to earn another fortune in the case that you should lose your first."
The old man squatted and leaned against a bail of some unknown skin. He invited me to do the same. I did.
"Good, you know enough to be deferential to an old man."
"How will I prove to you that I am a hard worker."
"Stop working for your father. For a year, find other occupation, and at the end of that time if you have proven yourself worthy, then I will know that you are a hard worker."
"And I may have your daughter's hand."
"Like all men you move too fast."
"What else is required?"
"You must respect your parents, and your in-laws."
"Of course, I would."
"I'm a lowly dealer in skins. You are a wealthy leathergoods merchant. You can say, without doubt, that you would listen to me if I required something of you in a marriage with my daughter."
"Monsieur Bourglay. I only ask for respect, and not fealty. I don't believe, at this point, that you are prepared to provide me with either, but you can learn respect. Even for a dirty old skinner like me."
"Is there anything else required?"
"Yes two things."
"What things?" I asked.
"That she love and that she is loved."
"I'm not sure I can guarantee those things now."
"I know you cannot Monsieur Bourglay, as you cannot prove the others. But in the end you must prove them all. You may see my daughter as soon as you like, but not without her aunt as chaperone. You may see my daughter as long as she wishes to see you…"
“But not without a chaperone.”
I left the small shop heady with his assent. The possibilities, which up to a moment ago were implausible, were now the nourishment of my dreams and aspirations. I pictured us in a fine town house overlooking the river, with servants and children. I saw her dressed in the best finery I could afford. I saw myself kissing her.
I planned our first outing as if I were planning the construction of a building in which I were going to live forever. I debated over whether we should have a ride in the country, a visit to a museum, or perhaps an evening at the opera. The ride into the country won out, until I could get to know more about her, and could trust that she would not be intimidated by culture, my education or her lack of it.
I asked our cook to prepare a fine meal for the Sunday following, then set a messenger around to invite Marie and her aunt for a carriage ride.
To my dismay, my offer was refused, and I was crushed. Was this the reason her father was so eager to let me see her, because he knew that she would never agree to it?
When I received the reply I drank two large goblets of brandy and dressed. I had to find out the reason my offer had been spurned. I marched down the quiet streets of the damp morning unsteady with the brandy that was now racing through my veins.
I knocked on the door of her apartment. No one answered. I knocked again. Then I banged. Then I called out. Finally someone answered.
"Quiet, on God's morning."
I was instantly humbled. It was, after all, Sunday, and I was breaking the peace of the day.
"Where is everyone?" I shouted, hoping my scolder hadn't closed her window.
"All the good people of the world are with God in church, my young scaliwag. You and I are alone. You without a friend, and I nursing a head that speaks to me louder than God will on judgment day."
"Sorry to wake you good friend," I called back.
"You haven't woken me," she replied. "You merely reminded me that I was alive. Come have a cup of coffee with me."
Below me, a house away, a large door opened, and a middle-aged woman looked up and beckoned me to her door.
"It will warm you until your friends come," she said. "And I need to be distracted from my aching head."
I followed her into her home. I t was dark and cramped, with only a few sticks of bare wood furniture to fill the small emptiness. A lamp burned low on a rough table. A coal mourned its life each time the wind coughed down the flue of her tiny hearth.
"I've some bread, as well. Though I don't feel up to it. And butter."
I sat down by the table and she hung a pot of water over the coal then poured some coffee in. She moved to a box on a small counter and uncovered a loaf of bread, and a small wedge of cheese. These she dropped on the table in front of me, scrapping away a knob of green mold, and stabbed a carving knife into its surface.
"So you are the boy Marie is to see?"
"She has not agreed to see me."
"She would be a fool not to."
"I thank you for saying so, but neither Marie, nor her father are as sure of this relationship."
She stared at me for a long moment before she spoke again.
"You are rich, are you not?"
"I suppose I am."
"You are educated?"
¬ "I've gone to public school."
"Are you the fool, or am I?"
"I believe I am. I don't seem to know what you're talking about."
"What I mean young man is, that I see Marie each day. She talks to me because she has no mother to talk to. She talked to me the first day she met you, many months ago. And she talked about you, the young son of a wealthy merchant, like she never had spoke of anyone before. I remember sounding like that in my youth, when my heart burned for a young man. I had felt that way myself once, perhaps twice, in my life, believe it or not.
"Then again, when she met you in market. She fairly ran to my door to tell me of meeting you again. To tell of your coffee. Yes.
"And again, with tears in her eyes, when her father made her refuse your invitation because she must attend Mass."
"Mass? It's Sunday."
"You are educated then?"
"Yes, but stupid as well."
"Not stupid my good young man. I am old, but I am not blind. And you, you are young and cannot see what lies before your eyes. Another cup of coffee? Mass will be done within fifteen minutes."
I stood and declined her offer. I swept crumbs from the hard-crusted bread to the floor, much to her chagrin, and excused myself.
"Thank you. For the coffee, the cheese and your wise words. But I must not be here when they arrive," I said as I walked out the door, bowing to my host slightly. She smiled and her face was woven with a lifetime of wrinkles. I stepped forward once more.
“Your name, I didn’t get your name?” I asked.
“My name is Lorraine Courville,” she nodded. “But everyone in this neighborhood calls me Tante Toutsais.”
“Tante Toutsaid,” I repeated. “Merci.”
I walked to the end of the street and met a crowd pouring down the steps of the local church. I stopped, then backed into an alley and waited as the crowd passed. I spotted Marie and her father and walked to the head of the alley, watching them traverse the street that I had just had recently staggered up.
I followed at the tail of the crowd and stood once again at Marie's door. My new friend, who had served me coffee, stood at her door, broom in hand. She put a finger to her lips, then to the side of her nose, made a smacking noise with her lips, and was gone into the gloomy interior of her home.
I knocked and Marie stood in front of me.
"Have you been to Mass?" I inquired.
She look surprised. Pleased, I hoped, then gestured for me to enter.
"We've just gotten in," she smiled. Her father stepped from the shadows and greeted me with a knowing grin.
"Will you join us for a meal?" he asked. "Marie has some bacon, and fresh eggs, and bread that came from the oven last night."
"I'd love some food," I said, standing back. At all costs, I wanted to avoid having them catch a scent of the brandy that must still linger on my breath.
Marie left me to her father as she went to prepare breakfast. He led me to a small but airy sitting room. It was lined with books, and Marie's father must have seen the surprise on my face.
"Not what you expected from a skinner, eh Jules?" he laughed.
It was not what I had expected, but I was reluctant to say otherwise.
"That's all right boy," he clapped me on the shoulder. "I wouldn't know if I was holding a book upside down, or right side up."
I turned again to the books. These were no texts on alchemy, or skinning. These were the novels of the great men of French culture. I looked back at the man still puzzled.
"They belonged to my wife. She was educated in public school and loved reading. These I bought for her, a few at a time, at auction, or when a house was being cleared at a death. She gave that love of the printed word to Marie. These same books that my Giselle read with such pleasure now give the same pleasure to Marie. Me, I don't even understand them when Marie reads me a passage out loud."
I pulled a book from the shelf. It was a bound set of plays by Moliere. I leafed through the pages and found passages lovingly notated in a feminine hand.
Marie called us for breakfast.
The kitchen was a south facing room, and so was brighter than the sitting room we were just in. It's view, a courtyard strewn with the debris of industry, was not as pleasant as that of the sitting room with it's rooftop view of the cobbled street. But when we sat at the rough hewn table, all we could see was treetops and puffy white clouds in a blue sky.
I was here eating a meal with my Marie, and I could have been in Eden.
We ate without speaking much. We could not seem to settle on a topic which would blossom for us. Finally Marie's father hit a subject that was mutually attractive.
"Do you read, my good Jules."
"I read at school, but I don't have much time for reading now."
"Monsieur Bourglay you must make the time. Reading can make you a different person,” Marie said.
"And what about me?" her father asked.
"You have always been a different person, Papa."
We ate until we could eat no more, and then Marie served a sweet pastry filled with raspberry jam. I was about to burst.
"Shall we still have a drive in the country?" she asked after the table had been cleared, and her father and I sat, near sleep in the sitting room.
"Yes," I cried, hopping to my feet, like Lazarus, from my near repose. "Bring your aunts and your cousins, whoever must come, and we will scandalize the countryside with our sophisticated joy.”
Our ride into the country that day was notable for only two events. The heat rose as we left the riverside, and the poor horse, who was neither used to pulling six people, Marie and I, her father, two aunts, Jeannine and Catherine, and an uncle, Adam, nor used to the heat, gave way. We struck a trade with a farmer, who sold me a mule, and now we have the only fashionable carriage in Lyon pulled by a mule. The horse, relieved, trailed behind.
The other event was a simple kiss. Stolen by Marie in the thin shadows of a stand of poplars. While her family fed bread crusts to a gaggle of trumpeting swans, we walked a path along the narrow brook that fed the pond, and Marie slipped her hand into mine. It was as if she touched me with a hot poker, it sent heat through my arm, and flushed me throughout. And then with a tug of her hand she stopped us, faced me, and bold as you please, she stood on her toes and kissed me, quite unsatisfactorily at first, for I was unprepared, and abashed. And then, with a deep breath, I recovered, and kissed this woman, as if she were the only woman to be kissed. She tasted like honey and cloves, and she smelled like the damp grass of morning. I found the world to be out of focus, and enveloped in a warm, bright light. I did not want to leave go, but with a slight push she stopped the engagement as surely as she had begun it.
"You've kissed a man before, haven't you?" I asked.
"I'm nineteen," she replied, turning and hastily rejoining her family.