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Visitation

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Jacques Gilbert

I don’t know why you’re asking me about this now, when it happened so many years ago and I’ve already told you everything important about André and me. This story isn’t about André anyway, it won’t fit right in your book. I didn’t remember it for a long time, but after I found out about my father, a lot of things that I hadn’t thought about in years started to sort of push themselves up in my head.

Memory’s a funny thing, a bit like double vision, when you can remember what you thought then but it’s all tangled up in what you think now. André then was mostly a snotty brat, younger and annoying and taking up Mother’s time and tagging along for no reason when I had to work and he didn’t, but when I remember how I felt about him then it’s all shot through with how I feel about him now.

Anyway, when I was about ten I was really ill. I had a cough that started out ordinary and got uglier and uglier till I was choking up disgusting slime every time I got up from lying down. I was no use to Father that way, and Mother kept me in bed all day and fed me soup, but one morning I woke up feeling hot and strange and Mother’s face tightened up when she leaned over to say good morning. The next few days are still a dizzy blur, and the next thing I remember – the next thing I’ve tried to remember – is the Seigneur looking at me.

For years if I thought of it all I thought it was a weird dream. He came to the stables a lot, and he talked with Mother when she went to the Manor to nurse André, but he never set foot in our house. But in this weird dream he leant over and felt my forehead, and his eyes crinkled and he smiled at me when he saw me looking at him. Then he turned his head to talk to Mother, hovering over his shoulder pleating her apron in her hands, and I think I fell asleep again.

It’s funny, but even after I learned he was my father I never thought this memory was real. I’d been certain it was a dream for so long that I never bothered to reconsider it, especially after the whole thing started fading from my mind. But you asked, and now I think it must have really happened.

Anyway, whether it did or not, I woke up next at the Manor. Mother was there, and I remember I was worried about that, because if we were both here who was looking after Father and Blanche and Little Pierre and Clare?

Clare was still alive. I’m not talking about that now.

But Mother was upset too, and at the time like a self-absorbed little kid I thought it was just because I was sick, but now I don’t want to think about what Father did when he found out what she’d done.

At the Manor of course I had a good doctor, that was the whole point of me being there, and my fever and cough went away pretty quickly. I was really tired for a while, and that worried me, because Father never let tiredness be an excuse for lying in bed, so why would the Seigneur, especially when it wasn’t even my own proper bed. For the first few days anytime I heard someone walking along the corridor I got ready to be told I had to leave. But all anyone said was telling me I’d get well soon and getting me to eat lots of soup. Mother was there less once I was better, but Pernette, the prettiest maid, looked after me with help from the other maids, and even Mme Trémaux the housekeeper sat with me sometimes. Like I said, I was a self-absorbed little kid and still sick too, I didn’t think it was strange they were all being so kind to a groom’s son.

So it wasn’t bad at all, even if Father never came to see me and I worried that he was angry because I couldn’t help him while I was sick. I had lots to eat and the bed was soft, though once I was really getting better I was bored a lot. André poked his head in my room a few times. Once I pretended to be asleep, and once he was chased out quickly by Pernette, but one time he sat on the bed and asked me questions about the horses, which one did I like best and which one ate the most, silly things like that. Then he heard someone coming and went under the bed, and I had to lie there in a cold sweat while the fancy doctor looked down my throat with Mme Trémaux and Pernette and Suzanne from the stillroom all standing there, and I swear I heard the boy giggle. I thought if he made any more noise I’d have to cough really loud, but the doctor’s nose was practically pressed against my tongue and it might’ve blown his eardrums out. I don’t know how he didn’t notice my heart pounding. But he finished, and patted my shoulder, and said things to Mme Trémaux and the maids that I didn’t listen to at all, and then they finally all left and André shot out from under the bed and laughed like a loon.

I’ll say this, but don’t write it down. I wish we’d grown up together. Not just on the same estate like we did, but as brothers. I didn’t like him then, but it was just because he was so different from me and I didn’t know how to be around him. It took the invasion for that to happen, and it was all because for once we were in the same situation. At the time obviously I didn’t care a lick about André, he was an irritating baby barely out of skirts, but now I wish I’d really known him as a child. It’s the double vision again. In the memory I wanted to yank his hair, but I think about it now and I want him – the memory-him, but also the real him – to know if I could have it over again I’d be laughing too.

Two things happened right before I went back home, that scared the shit out of me at the time, but like a little kid they sort of slid right out of my mind afterwards, I didn’t want to think about them and so I didn’t. The first was that the Seigneur came to see me. I hadn’t seen him since that dream I thought I’d had where he was in our house. He brought me a marzipan sweet, which I didn’t really like but ate because he gave it to me and smiled, and then he just sat and looked at the room for a bit while I tried to brush the sugar off my mouth.

Finally he turned back to me and said he was glad I was feeling better and he hoped I would be quite restored with a little more rest. I couldn’t think of anything to say except that I hoped so too, and that sounded stupid in my head, so I just sort of bobbed a nod, and then thought maybe he would think I was being rude, so I said, “Yes, Sieur.” He was smiling at me sort of sadly, with these big green eyes like André has, and I wished I was still sick enough to fall asleep right then.

He said, “Your father must miss you.” Forget speechless before, there was literally no answer in the world to that, we both knew my Father hadn’t set foot in the Manor for the two weeks I’d been there and wouldn’t have even if I’d been sick for a year. The Seigneur went straight on from that like he knew I couldn’t say anything to it, but what he said was worse, he said, “Is your father kind to you?”

I think I actually gaped at him. Even as a kid I knew the nobility didn’t care if their grooms were kind to their useless children, why would he possibly ask me that, it wasn’t even just a courteous question because it was so ridiculous. Then I thought in a flash, he wants to get at Father, the insolence and drunkenness isn’t enough, he wants me to tell him bad things about my Father so he can get rid of him. I almost hated him then. I said, “Yes, Sieur,” and added on, “He’s my father,” to let him know I wouldn’t give him anything. His whole face sort of closed up, and he was in a hurry to get out after that, he wished me a swift recovery and was gone. I lay back in his great soft bed and felt a sick kind of satisfaction.

I was an idiot. Of course if I’d known then I wouldn’t have said that. You can guess for yourself what I would’ve said.

Anyway after that I was in a hurry to be gone. I was afraid the Seigneur would come back and pester me again to get at Father – like I said, an idiot – so I ate everything they gave me and slept all I could until finally Mme Trémaux said my Mother would come get me the next day. That was in the morning, and I thought I’d better sleep most of the day so the Seigneur wouldn’t take his last chance to talk to me, but I was so nervous about everything, about going home and seeing Father and getting away from the Manor that I couldn’t sleep, and I thought every minute I’d hear his footsteps.

But the Seigneur didn’t come to see me. Madame did.

I’d never spoken to her. She was more beautiful than my Mother in a still blank way, and very tall, and wore dresses that I wished my Mother could wear like they were sackcloth. The servants talked about her a lot, mostly about her clothes and her jumped-up family and how she was lucky André had lived since she’d never had another baby. Everyone respected her, no one crossed her, but I don’t think anyone really liked her either. She wasn’t even noble, not by birth, but she was remote. The Seigneur was like some big animal, sometimes frightening and sometimes playful or gentle, but Madame was like a mountain. You couldn’t imagine her bending to your level at all. You couldn’t imagine her in any way different or smaller or closer.

If I’d thought I was scared when the Seigneur came, I was absolutely petrified when I opened my eyes and Madame was there. It wasn’t even that I didn’t know what to say to her, it was that I didn’t think I’d physically be able to answer her if she spoke to me. My throat had closed up and my lips felt frozen. She smiled at me, her lips moving and her eyes still. The last little rag of thought left in my head said maybe the Seigneur had sent her to get me to say something about Father, but even I could tell how stupid that was.

She said, “You’re a fortunate boy, Jacques,” and I was so flabbergasted she knew my name that I almost forgot to mumble yes, I certainly was, thank you Madame.

She said, “My husband has taken an interest in you.” I just stared, and maybe she guessed how clueless I was, and she went on, “Do you know why?”

There was no way I could say, “Because he wants to get rid of my father,” because that made the Seigneur sound petty and weak to boot and I was sure it wasn’t the answer she wanted, so I just stumbled out something like No, Madame, but I was very thankful. I must have sounded like a complete halfwit, but I was hoping she would tell me a different reason for the Seigneur’s interest.

She eyed me, and suddenly I thought that she had actually wanted my answer, that she didn’t know herself why her husband was interested in me, and had come to find out. It was the strangest thing I had ever thought, that there was something that Madame lacked in any way. For a moment she was actually a person, curious about people like anyone, and even uncertain. We stared at each other.

I don’t know what she would have asked me next. André came barreling in then, already babbling something to me, but he saw her and stopped and bowed, and said, “Madame,” and then, “Maman,” and she smiled a real smile at him and held out her hand till he came over to the bed, next to me, and finally she looked at us side by side with our faces right next to each other, as almost no one ever had.

Her face froze, and her eyes flicked back and forth like a trapped bird’s. For a moment she looked like my Mother when she knew Father was angry, and a different kind of chill went through me. She said, “André, we must leave Jacques to rest,” her voice harsh, and André started to argue and then looked at her face and waved at me and was gone. She sat and looked at me a little longer, her face still fixed and her eyes burning in bright points, and I was terrified that she would say something else. I had no idea what I’d done wrong. But finally she rose with perfect grace and swept out of the room without looking back, and then Pernette came back and gave me a drink that made me sleepy, and when I woke up Mother was there, and we went home.

Madame never spoke to me or looked at me again.

Now I know she realized about me then, and that her husband had never told her anything. None of the other servants ever mentioned any fight between them, even any strange conversation, so I don’t think she ever said a thing to him about me. Antoine de Roland died defending his wife with that secret still between them, me still between them, as far as I know – fallen between them like a dropped glove, both knowing it, maybe even knowing that the other knew, but neither willing to step forward and claim it, claim me. I didn’t understand it as a child and I don’t think I ever will.

André will never know this.

You will. Maybe that’s something.