Sometimes, in this big, cold house, I pretend I am an explorer on an expedition, navigating the long corridors like rivers, the huge rooms undiscovered islands. I crawl under tables and leap onto sofas. I take my sister’s hand, and we run through the rooms together. But the air next to my body is cold because she isn’t really there, and when I look at the empty space next to me, my chest hurts. It hurts right where my heart is, so I think that this must be what is meant by a broken heart.
“Why,” I ask Maman, “is everything different?”
She puts her hands on my cheeks and looks at me with eyes that are so soft and brown I wish I could touch them.
“You are just a boy,” she says. “It is too much for a boy to understand.”
Aimée was never told why Henri came to live with them. She was never told anything that mattered. She used to think it was because she was a girl, and only boys got to know the truth about things, but eventually she came to understand that some things are better left unknown.
When the sun rose bright and cruel above the haze of smoke that covered the city, Henri made up his mind to leave. He had only slept a few hours, and he lay with his wrist flung over his eyes, blocking out the sharp light that persisted through the windows.
Last night had the outlines of a dream, its degradation cloaked in uncertainty. But it wasn’t a dream, and the shame of it coiled through him, cool and piercing as wire.
The crack of a bullet came from outside, a sharp whine as it sailed through the air, and then silence. Henri pulled his hand from his face and tucked his arm under the quilt, pressing his icy fingertips into his bare stomach. From his pillow he could see the underside of the varnished cherry bedposts, and the blooms on the wallpaper bursting open to the ceiling.
How sweet it would be to roll over, pull his head under the warmth of the quilt, and fall back asleep. But the slant of light through the windows, and the silence in the house told him that it was still early, early enough to slip away undetected.
On a count of three, he tossed the covers off and sat up. The air was so raw the shock of it almost took away the hollow dread in the pit of his stomach.
The fires in the house hadn’t been lit in months. Paris had been under siege for one hundred days, and there was nothing left to burn. What peat they had was reserved for cooking, but even that wouldn’t last much longer.
Taking short puffs of air into his lungs, Henri snatched his wool stockings from the floor, his linen drawers and undershirt, and hurriedly put them on. From a trunk he took a pair of twill trousers, a shirt, waistcoat, and cravat. His armoire had been removed for safekeeping, and his clothes were badly creased. But that hardly mattered now.
He struggled to tie his cravat, his fingers stiff with cold as he walked to the window, watching a pall of black smoke curl over the rooftops into a clear sky.
The street was eerily deserted, the road a sheet of ice. It would be slippery going, he thought, feeling very weak, like a boy again standing at his old bedroom window in England. There had been snow on the ground when he left then too, and he had felt this same sense of dread.
Shells fell outside like cracks of thunder, and Henri pressed his palms over his eyes. He was not a brave man, and yet he wasn’t afraid of being hit by a stray bullet or freezing in a gutter. He was afraid of facing the intolerable loneliness he’d known before coming here.
He turned from the window as the sound of footsteps came down the corridor, frantically stepping toward the bed as if he meant to hide under it. He couldn’t face Colette, or Auguste, but it was the thought of seeing Aimée’s serious eyes and her honest, straightforward face that made him feel sick.
The latch to his bedroom door clicked and lifted, but whoever stood on the other side clearly couldn’t face him either, because the latch fell back into place, and the footsteps receded down the hall.
Henri didn’t waste any time then. He grabbed his bag, threw in two pairs of stockings, a shirt, trousers, and his black frock coat. Briefly, he fingered his waistcoat embroidered with tulips and edged in silk ribbon, then shoved it back into the trunk.
Pulling on his greatcoat, he hoisted his bag over one shoulder and stepped gingerly into the hallway. He wondered how he was going to retrieve his paint box and portable easel from his studio on the third story where the militiamen were now billeted.
The corridor was empty and quiet. Henri knew he should hurry, and yet he stood looking at the small dent on the floor where, as a child, he’d dropped a large, marble elephant Auguste had given him. The elephant was still on the mantel in his bedroom with a chip in its trunk.
Henri thought of going back for it, but he didn’t, and when he finally moved forward, it wasn’t courage or any sort of heroic strength that drove him, only simple, undeniable shame.
As Henri crept down the hall, stepping cautiously over the soft sections of floor that moaned with pressure, Colette sat at her dressing table untangling metal curlers from her hair and trying to ignore the gurgling noise coming from her husband’s open mouth in the bed behind her. With a hand mirror, she arranged the curls at the back of her neck and then pinned a large amethyst brooch at her throat. After last night, she felt it imperative to look particularly lovely today, no matter the war.
When she finished, she stood over Auguste and watched him sleep. The white coverlet was clutched up to his chin, which had sprouted unruly whiskers. Lazy whiskers, Colette called them. He’d been a lot more attractive in his lieutenant’s uniform, before he’d suffered the minor wound that forced him to leave the service. She may have been able to find something attractive in him if he’d been in the artillery, fighting heroically, but he’d been posted to the general staff where there was no real danger other accidentally dropping his bayonet straight through his foot.
It was not that she didn’t love him. She was just disgusted with him. What woman wouldn’t be? He lay in bed all day complaining even though he could walk perfectly well with a cane.
“What’s the point of getting up when there’s no meal to go down to?” he grumbled. “Besides, keeping to bed is the only way to stay warm.”
He’d tried to get her to join him, tugging at the front of her dress as he pulled her on top of him, and she’d had to slap his hands away from her breasts.
“You’re too pathetic an old man to attract my attention anymore,” she’d said, struggling to her feet, which had only made him laugh, as if he didn’t really believe her.
This had always been their marriage. He would want her, she’d push him away, he’d become inflamed by her flirtatious nature, there would be a passionate fight, and then they’d fling themselves at each other.
She held back for Auguste’s own good. Marriage was boring. If she gave in easily there’d be no struggle, and men like a struggle.
She’d known this from the beginning. She made Auguste wait three years for her hand in marriage even though he had asked the very night he met her.
“You’re magnificent,” he’d whispered, pulling her off the dance floor onto a dark balcony. “Marry me.”
“I’ve only just met you!” Colette had cried, her voice pitched with youth and the delight of attention. “Besides, I’d be a fool to marry the first man who asked.”
She was only seventeen, after all, and not the type of girl to make things easy on anyone.
After that, she entertained more suitors than was respectable, receiving an outrageous number of proposals even for a woman of her beauty. Most men would have given up. Not Auguste. He didn’t bother with the coy formalities of courtship, but worshiped Colette openly, which she rebuked, though secretly adoring his attention. He’d drop conversations the moment she entered a room, rushing to take her hand, holding it firmly as he ran his thumb over the ridge of her knuckles, at first gently, and then with enough pressure to arouse her.
If he’d only touch her like that again, Colette thought.
Auguste groaned and rolled over, one arm falling limply off the edge of the bed. He looked vulnerable in his sleep, and as Colette turned away, the gravity of what she had done sliced through her, sharp as a blade, leaving a deep wound of regret.
Auguste’s maman, Madame Savaray, was the only one who saw Henri leave.
Earlier that morning she had been in the kitchen checking on the menial provisions Marie had procured for the day’s meals. In normal times, Colette ran the household and had always made it perfectly clear that Madame Savaray was not to interfere. But ever since that first shell fell on Paris, Colette had receded, doing nothing to ensure their survival.
Madame Savaray, on the other hand, knew all about survival. She came from the Nord—a much heartier people than the pampered Parisians—where she’d practically starved as a child. She knew what it was to be hungry, and she knew what it was to sleep on soiled linens. She also knew they should be grateful that, under Marie’s vigilant stewardship, there was something to eat every day.
They had been fools to stay in Paris. Auguste had wanted to send them to England, but Henri, who was not obligated to fight since he was not a Frenchman, had refused to return to his homeland, something Madame Savaray simply did not understand. Colette had also refused to leave. She’d said, “I don’t see why I should be cast out of my own home. These things always sound worse than they are.” Of course, Auguste let her do exactly as she pleased. So here they were, stuck in Paris as it crashed and crumbled around them.
Fools, every one of them, Madame Savaray was thinking as she ascended the stairs, stopping at the sight of Henri, bag and easel in hand. He looked sickly. He had always been a thin, weak child, and he had grown into a thin, weak man. His stooped shoulders, his restless blue eyes that never seemed to settle anywhere, and the way he mumbled—as if petrified to speak up—had always made Madame Savaray pity him, as if the simple hardships of life were too much to bear.
Today, he looked particularly troubled, and there was such desperation in his piercing eyes that Madame Savaray stepped forward unwittingly, but he practically ran out the front door. She had the urge to run after him.
Where in heaven’s name was he going? To paint in the open air? What a ridiculous business this new method of painting outdoors. His hands would freeze. He would get shot. What could he be thinking?
Quickly, she went to the parlor.
Colette had just come in, missing Henri by minutes. She was seated at the far end of the room near a set of double doors that, in warmer months, opened onto a garden. In her hand she held a piece of ecru fabric cinched into an embroidery ring.
Madame Savaray couldn’t help noticing how thoughtlessly attractive Colette looked this morning. There was a war on. The woman could at least attempt modesty. It was sacrilegious to sit in her silk dress with a brooch at her throat when people were freezing to death.
Wetting the tip of her finger and knotting the end of her thread, Colette glanced up at Madame Savaray. Her mother-in-law was a formidable woman, taller than most, with wide hips and an abundant chest that, with age, had turned into a hapless mound of flesh. Her face was set hard beneath a black bun, and her dated wool dress swished over the floor. It had always amazed Colette that—given Madame Savaray’s age—her hair had never grayed. It was still so black that sunlight could turn it blue.
“Where is Henri going?” Madame Savaray demanded.
Colette’s needle hovered over the tiny, yellow bird she was stitching. “Whatever do you mean?”
“He just walked out the front door.”
Colette looked as if not quite understanding. Then she dropped her embroidery on the chair and stepped to the window. “He can’t have,” she said, drawing back the curtain.
“Well, he did!” Exasperated, Madame Savaray left the room. “Aimée?” she called, mounting the stairs to the second story, a muscle in her left leg cramping as it always did in this miserably cold weather, not to mention her hip joints cracking at every step. “Aimée?”
Her petite-fille stepped into the corridor, her hair half up, the rest hanging straight down her back like a slab of dark wood. Aimée still had the figure of a girl, but she had grown into a thoughtful, serious woman with the most unusual eyes. At times, like right now, they were as soft and pale as the morning sky. But they could shift, without warning, to a sharp, unrelenting gray.
Madame Savaray halted in front of her, respiring quickly from the climb, the pain in her left leg worsening as she stood still. “What have you put Henri up to? You might as well tell me the truth. I have not the time, nor the patience, to drag it out of you.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean,” Aimée said, a hot rush of fear and excitement expanding through her. Henri must have already told her papa about them.
“He’s gone.” Madame Savaray’s eyes narrowed. “And I suspect you know why.”
“I’m certain he’s in his room.”
“Well, I’m certain he just walked out the front door.”
“That’s impossible. He can’t have.”
A puff of air exploded from Madame Savaray’s lips. “It’s quite possible,” she said. “I just saw him leave.”
Stunned, Aimée said, “Why would he do that?”
“He had his easel. I imagined you two had come up with some preposterous idea of risking his neck for a painting worthy of the salon.” She shook her head. “Or some such nonsense.”
Aimée flew down the hall. Henri’s bedroom was empty, the bed covers tossed aside and the sheets rumpled where Henri’s body had been. There was a slight indent on his pillow, a shirtsleeve hanging over the edge of his trunk like a limp arm. Everything had the look of an impulsive departure, and Aimée felt a sudden lurch in her chest.
In the parlor, Colette was at the window with her fist clenched around the curtain. She did not look at her daughter when Aimée stood beside her. There was a hefty sigh from Madame Savaray as she sank onto the sofa, tucking her foot under her petticoat and flexing it to relieve the cramp in her leg.
Aimée pressed her forehead against the glass, the cold sending a tendril of pain coiling behind her eyes. The rue de Passy was empty. Nothing, save for a lone set of footprints broken through the ice-coated snow.
“Henri wouldn’t paint in this weather,” she said, peeling her head from the window, a red circle widening across her forehead. Henri would not leave her either. There must be some explanation. “We should tell Papa. He can send someone to find him.”
Colette let go of the curtain and stepped carefully away from her daughter. “There’s no need to worry your papa.” She lifted her embroidery from the chair and sat down. “Monsieur Manet walked through the streets yesterday. Clearly, it’s not that dangerous.”
There was a pulsing in Aimée’s neck, a fast thumping near the ridge of her throat as she watched her maman plunge her needle into the fabric. Her maman was not a cold woman, but she reserved her warmth when it came to Aimée and her papa, dishing it out in small, controlled doses. Where Henri was concerned, however, there was always a kind word, a smile of avowed admiration.
Aimée pictured the indentation on Henri’s pillow, the mark of his hurried absence, and fear ballooned inside her.
She turned back to the window, the snow outside brilliant and blinding.
“Aimée,” Colette spoke sharply, focusing on exactly where to place the bird’s outstretched wing in her embroidery. “Come away from that draft. You’re struggling to see something that is not there.”
If Colette had seen the desperation on her daughter’s face, if she had noticed Aimée’s hands turned up at her sides and her neck tilted forward in a silent plea for help, things might have turned out differently. But all Colette saw was the silhouette of her stubborn daughter in the window.
“I’m sure Henri just needed to get out of the house for a while,” she said. “What I wouldn’t give for some air.”
Madame Savaray made an audible snort. “From the expression on Henri’s face, he was not stepping out for a bit of air.”
Colette gripped her needle, her hand dashing up and down. “And what expression was that, exactly?”
The question, in Madame Savaray’s opinion, did not deserve an answer. She was no fool. She could see the uncertainty passing over Colette’s face, her white knuckles, and her hand quickening its pace.
Seventeen idle years in this house had turned Madame Savaray into a keen observer. She made a game out of it, predicting the meanings behind a look or a gesture. There was so much a person didn’t say. It amazed her that others didn’t pay more attention to the silences. But then, there were so many things that had amazed her since she’d moved into this house after her husband’s death.
She’d come from the town of Roubaix, where her husband had devoted himself to the new opportunities in textiles and made a great fortune. A huge portion of this he had used to finance his son’s endeavors in Paris, where Auguste Savaray now ran a successful lace and linen thread business.
Madame Savaray had no idea how it was so successful. Her son, in her opinion, was lazy, and in her day a lazy man did not make a fortune. Her husband had worked fifteen-hour days and never once, in twenty years, took a holiday. She had worked just as hard beside him, controlling the accounts, keeping the books, distributing the raw materials, and inspecting the finished products. Every day, no matter the weather, she opened that factory gate at six in the morning for the workers. Her life was spent in a world of quality control, price fluctuations, and labor problems until her husband died, the business was sold, and she was forced to move in with her son. At the time, she imagined Auguste could use her help.
Very quickly she learned that her son did not believe a woman, young or old, knew anything about running a business.
Madame Savaray watched as Colette deftly snipped a thread with a tiny pair of swan-shaped scissors. She did not understand this new generation of women. All they did was sit around in silk dresses planning soirées. She closed her eyes, the cramp in her leg finally easing up. She supposed Colette wasn’t to blame for her ways. Men didn’t want women to know the value of money anymore. It was just how the world was now.
A shell fell so close it shook the house. Madame Savaray’s eyes flew open, and Colette’s scissors dropped to the floor. Aimée clutched her skirt, watching the smoke swallow the street, blotting out the last blue strip of sky.
“Henri will be home by dinner,” Madame Savaray said. “Aimée, my dear, you must stand away from that glass.”
But Aimée couldn’t move.
She felt weak and brittle, like a withered twig hanging onto an already dead tree. It seemed she’d crack with the slightest movement, shatter, if she so much as bumped against something.