Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Chapter Twenty One - The Leatherman's Journal, June 4 1875

My friend Pierre warned me. In this he knew my own father better than I.

"He will not let you have this woman as a wife."

I, of course, told him that he was mad. Everyday I saw my father working with people below his station. He always treated them with respect and dignity. He never condescended. He always made them feel as if they were worthwhile.

"It's business," Pierre said. "He must do that because of his business."

"Pierre, this is my father we're talking about. He has raised me. I have lived with him for twenty-four years. I know he will love Marie. He has met her before. He is charmed by her."

"I fear that you're wrong, my friend. If she was your lover. Your paramour, even if you were married to someone else, he would overlook it. But your wife. The woman who will carry his heir? Never."

I could not listen to him. Would not. Marie was beautiful. She was intelligent and caring. And in the course of six months we knew we were in love. I wanted to propose to her, but I felt I must tell my own father before I approached hers to ask for her hand.

"Jules. Love her until you stop, but why marry?" Pierre asked. "She will only bring you the sorrow of a man without a family."

"I will speak with my father today," I declared. " And be able to call you a fool."

"Why have you not spoken to your father before?" he asked.

This was a question I asked myself before, often. By now I had reasoned out an answer.

"A young man may speak of his love to a mother. But you know, Pierre, a father is much harder to speak to."

"Your father will be impossible to speak to about this love, my friend."

Sad to say, my friend Pierre was more right than I imagined he could be. My father was happy to hear that I had fallen in love. Was delighted to be able to celebrate a wedding until he heard who my betrothed would be.

"The skinner? Even his skins are second rate."

"Father, you've always bought from him. He is well off. She is an educated girl."

"He is a worker. They are common and unclean. If she knows the alphabet and can count you may say she is educated. Beyond that it is impossible that she knows life's finer things."

"She reads, Father," I protested. "She knows the great authors of this country and others. Her mother was a teacher. Father, I love her."

"What is love," he shouted. "Think of our reputation. There are thousands of girls in Lyon you can love. Hundreds whose station in life matches your own. I won't have you marrying a skinner's daughter."

"What are you?" I countered. "But a skinner. A skinner in a bigger housed, but a skinner nonetheless. Is the money you have any more valuable than his? is your life any more important? Is it what you know? Who you know? Or simply how long you've known it."

"You won't marry her and be my son," my father shouted.

"Then I am not your son," I said. I marched from the room noisily, tears welling in my eyes. My mind set, refusing to let them fall. I wanted to turn around and apologize. I wanted to run to my father and embrace him and beg him to understand. But I could not.

I wished that my mother were still alive. I wanted her to intervene. To negotiate. To say the right words and caress the heated temple.

I wanted my father to understand and he would not. And now, because I was my father's son, I would not bend to his will either.

I stayed with Pierre for nearly a month. Not once in that time did my father send for me, inquire about me, or walk by Pierre's house, though he must have known where I was, for I had no where else to go.

"Did you know," I asked Pierre one night at a supper of coffee, bread, cheese, fish and a white wine from the mountains. "That life is illusory."

"What?" he asked, mouth stuffed with bread.

"A teacher I once had. An old man. A wise man who knew the Hindu religion, said that this life is illusory. Everything we have is useless. This life is a dream, and there is another life, the real life to come."

"Christ said the same," Pierre reminded me. "It will be as hard for a wealthy man to reach the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle."

"So he did. Do you think I should leave my father's business?"

¬ "Are you mad, Jules. You are set for life. You must work, surely, but your father has a business that he has prepared for you to inherit. The leather business is one you know. You've grown up with it. It comes naturally to you. Why seek something else?" he asked plainly enough.

"Perhaps I should seek poverty," I wondered aloud.

"You need not seek poverty. It can find you easily enough. It has found many a man who was seeking its opposite. Live here another month and poverty may come to board with you."

I laughed, but I knew it was true that I must re-establish my ties with my father. Not for want of money, for I felt that he would never let me suffer want, no matter how separated our opinions were. I missed him, I truly missed him.

In the time I was gone I saw Marie only three times. I thought, when I was with her, how it would be should I lose her, and it convinced me ever more that I could not. That I must convince my father that she is worthy of my love. Worthy of his love.

Ha. What a word, “worthy,” for the truth was that neither of us was worthy of her love. We were the ones who would be left deserving.

I met her one night for a walk after dinner. She had to be home each night to cook for her father. And though he did not scorn me as my father scorned her, he did not feel completely comfortable, completely at home with me at table. So I stayed away.

But after supper I waited at her door. Half the town seemed to be out on this balmy night moving down toward the river where the whisper of a sea breeze could be felt. Marie appeared at the door. She smiled and the evening lit like a taper.

"My aunt, we must stop at her door," Marie reminded.

By now I was accustomed to our perennial companion. Her name was Agetthe, a widower whom had borne six of her own who were now far flung across the face of France. She lived close by Marie and her father. They were her guardian and companion. As she now was ours. She always walked several paces behind us, bestowing upon us a strange privacy that she would not betray even when we tried to engage her in conversation.

Tonight she came to the kitchen door.

"Go," she said stiffly with a brush of her hand. "Go."

"Aunt, do you not wish to take the night air with us?" Marie asked.

Aunt Agetthe smiled pushed her head out thedoor and took a deep breath.

"If your father asks, I have taken the night air with you. It is sweet, but young people must taste what's sweeter."

I was quite surprised, but Marie seemed not at all taken aback at the turn of events.

"Perhaps Agette is ill," I said to Marie.

"She is not ill. She is feeling quite well, I would say. And you Jules, are you feeling ill at ease?”

I answered that of course I was not. When in fact, I seemed a little lost without Aunt Agetthe in tow. As long as she was there, our boundaries were drawn. The barricades were up. How we could behave was proscribed.

"I know a path through the park that is secluded," Marie purred.

I was, of course, a man of the world. I had been seduced by a teenage girl before I left Persia. but it was so long ago, and I wasn't really aware of what she did or why. Of course I knew what she did, but that is not what was planned for this evening. I'd kissed women before, of course, but none who had my heart so sewn up in her apron.

The path we took was not as secluded as I had imagined. It was filled with couples. Some sat on shawls thrown carelessly on the ground, some sat on boulders, others reclined on the bare earth. All were embraced passionately and did not care a whit that we passed them in the dark.

"Here is a spot," Marie said, indicating what was indeed a "spot." It was a warm patch of turf, with unruly cowlicks poking from between the roots of an enormous plane tree. Marie sat on the ground and pulled me with her. She looked me squarely in the eyes and smiled.

"Alone for the first time. You have not kissed me yet."

She was this abrupt, and I felt my heart pound and a wave of heat move up my chest and over my face. My hands trembled slightly."

"Jules," she repeated. "Don't you want to kiss me?"

"Yes," I cried as I lunged for her and kissed her hard on the mouth. It felt very good to me. She seemed to enjoy it too.

"That was fine. For our first kiss," she said, rather coldly. "But it will not do forever. I will have swollen lips."

"Am I that unskilled?"

"Have you kissed a woman before?" Marie asked kindly.

"Many," I answered as ruthlessly as I could.

"They may have been stronger woman than I, Jules. I need tenderness. Let me show you."

We kissed again. Marie led me this time. Her kiss was soft. A caress that sent a cold current through my veins that bewilderingly heated me as if I were placed in an oven. I felt her lips move, and mine moved with them. Her lips acted as gentle levers and parted my lips and suddenly I felt the warmth of her tongue against mine. I was lost. We may have kissed like that for an hour or a minute. I lost all track of time. I felt lost in her soul. Lost in her kiss. I was hers. I surrendered.

She pulled from my embrace.

"You see?" Marie asked.

"Yes, you are right. Teach me more."

She stood and dusted her dress, straightening the pleats that ran from her slim waist to the dusty earth.

"Father will be waiting," she warned. "We must be home."

"One more kiss," I begged.

"There will be a thousand nights, and a thousand walks. And the river will flow, and never change. And you will kiss me on each of those nights, and each of those walks. There will be a thousand nights together, my Jules."

"But none like this first," I said, standing and wrapping my arms around her.

She kissed me again. First soft, and then deeply, as before, stealing my breath away.

"If we don't hurry home, there will be no others."

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