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Authors: Barbara Pope

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BOOK: The Missing Italian Girl
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They had to squeeze past a bar, where men stood with their backs to the crowd, drinking with sullen seriousness. A tall, red-headed waitress, carrying a tray of brimming beer steins, spotted Bernard and jerked her head toward a small round table. Clarie nodded a thanks. At least the waitress did not seem to find anything remarkable or out-of-place about them. Almost before they were settled, a man with rolled-up sleeves, a striped shirt, and burly arms placed his thick hands on their table and asked what he could get them. It was even hotter in the café than outside, and the effort evident in his sweating, balding head and ruddy face made his mustache droop in the heat. When Bernard ordered beer and sausages, the man assured them that Colette would be back soon with their food. And then, before taking his leave, he winked at Clarie. Taken aback, Clarie glanced at Bernard, who raised his eyebrows in amusement.

“Does it make you think of Chez l’Arlésienne?” he shouted over the noise. Indeed, it did not. Her aunt and uncle’s restaurant in Aix, where she had met the young and inexperienced judge Bernard Martin, had been far quieter, but certainly, she thought, as she glanced around at the men in bowlers and caps puffing on cigarettes and cigars, no less filled with winkers, even customers forward enough to put their hands on her skirts as she waited on their tables. “No,” she shouted back. “They didn’t smoke so much back then, nor did they keep their hats on.” But she pressed his hand under the table to show that she understood his meaning. She may have finally risen to the rank of “madame le professeur,” but she hadn’t always been. She was the daughter of a blacksmith, the niece of hardworking cooks, a former waitress. A girl with her past, he seemed to be saying, should find comfort in a place like this. He was telling her to relax, not to worry about what she had become.

Within minutes, the red-haired Colette appeared and thumped two beers on the table. Clarie watched as the foam floated precariously back and forth, dripping white cascades along the sides of the glasses. Without a word, the waitress grabbed the end of her already wet and spotted apron, and wiped the table before turning her back. This time it was Clarie who raised her eyebrows in amusement. Then she took the stein by its handle and lifted it up. “To your new career,” she said. “To the Labor Exchange,” he responded with clink. The stalwart Colette arrived again and plunked two sandwiches on their table. A long sausage peeked out invitingly from each end of their half baguettes. Clarie was starving. As she was about to take her first bite, she spotted a man in a flat bowler and jacket waving at them. When he caught Bernard’s attention, he walked over to greet her husband.

“Maître Martin,” he said, extending his hand toward Bernard.

“Joseph, good to see you here,” said Bernard as he got up and introduced Joseph Tilyer, head of the carpenter’s union, to Clarie.

When she extended her hand, the short, squat sandy-haired man reached down to kiss rather than shake it, tickling her ever so slightly with his bushy mustache and scratchy unshaved chin. “Ah yes,” he said, when he straightened up, “the professor.”

Clarie blushed as his eyes roved over her. He was sizing her up.

“Bourgeois girls, high school, no? What of teaching workers’ children?” he muttered, his mouth so close she could smell his cigarettes and see his yellowing teeth.

“Monsieur Tilyer, it would be my greatest wish that all children, workers or not, boys or girls, could go to high school.” Clarie could have bitten her tongue. She sounded so prim.

“Well said.” Tilyer’s smile was much too sardonic for her taste. “But for now,” he said, speaking louder, “I’m sending my kids to classes at the Bourse, so that they can learn a thing or two about unions and workers’ rights.” Before Clarie could muster a response, he turned to Bernard and clapped him on the arm. “And you’re going to help teach them. Our professor,” he paused, “for certain things that the workers can’t teach themselves, of course. Like bourgeois law.” He said this last phrase as if he had just bitten into a sour lemon.

A baby began to scream at the next table and, with all the shouts and shushing, Clarie could not discern how Bernard was responding, or if he had even heard what the rude union boss had said to her. She watched as he nodded at something the carpenter was telling him and offered his hand before the man took his leave. While she was still feeling the sting of Tilyer’s disapproval, Bernard seemed quite pleased. Sipping her beer, she determined not to worry about whether her husband fit in to his new position. He had obviously just entered another man’s world as far removed from her as the courthouse had been. It was childish, but, perhaps because of what she had become, a respectable bourgeois mother and teacher, she felt left out. And, more, unfairly judged by a stranger. She had worked very hard, believed in what she did. Clarie felt angry, and at the same time a little sad, because she could not help wondering if, in becoming who she thought she wanted to be, she had not left something important behind.

Suddenly the pianist struck a loud chord and ran a glissando. When the café quieted down, he got up and, with a sweep of his hand, presented Marie Rossignol. A petite middle-aged woman made a dramatic entrance on the center of the little stage. Her raven black hair was cut into a sharply angled bob and her satiny purple dress swayed above her ankles. Hands folded in front of her, the singer turned slowly and, with piercing dark eyes and resolutely closed scarlet lips, demanded the attention of everyone in the room.

“I’ve been told,” she announced, “that we have a special guest, a new supporter of our cause, born and raised in Lille. Let’s sing this song for him.”

Bernard leaned over to Clarie and whispered, “Tilyer knows I’m from the north, so he requested something for me.” Still tense from her exchange with the carpenter, Clarie nodded and gave Bernard a tight smile. The pianist played a few measures and paused. The singer lifted her head and raised her folded hands to her chest. A surprisingly stirring voice issued from her bird-like body. She began slowly:

They were from the same village

And loved each other tenderly

To unite themselves in marriage

They had vowed with great solemnity

The lad worked with such energy

As he followed his father into the mines

She became a weaver in a factory

They lived with honor all through that time

“Sing with me, now,” the singer interjected. And a few voices joined her in a chorus.

She was young and beautiful

He was strong and full of worth

Everyone remembers them

The Fiancés of the North

Marie Rossignol put up her hand, for silence. Spreading her arms she sang about the fiancés’ pure love and how they marched for their rights on the Workers’ Holiday. After another chorus joined by more of the audience, she opened her eyes wide and signaled a halt to the piano. She began the next lines in a harsh whisper which slowly rose to a tragic crescendo:

The dawn that day shone bright and clear

As flowers bloomed on the First of May

The day that put all France in tears

Because of the great calamity

In the square near the church in the crowd

They stood tall at the front of the line

Then shots rang forth and the blood flowed out

And the two of them lay there dying

She began singing again, louder and stronger:

Oh massacre so sinister

That all will cry henceforth

O’er the tomb where they’re fore’er interred

The Fiancés of the North

She waved her hand, and shouted “Now!” and most of the room responded, some with beer steins pounding on the wooden tables and others lifted by emotion to their feet:

She was young and beautiful

He was strong and full of worth

Everyone remembers them

The Fiancés of the North

Clarie was mesmerized by the passion of the performer. Still, she glanced at Bernard from time to time to observe his reactions. She thought she saw tears forming in his eyes. He leaned forward as if he were about to stand and join the singing. But this was not him, at least not yet. She had never seen him show his emotions in public. He did clap with those who clamored and whistled as Marie Rossignol bowed.

“The Fourmies massacre,” he shouted to Clarie above the din. “In 1891. This is their song.” Having some vague memory of the event, in which workers peacefully marching for their rights had been shot by government troops, she nodded. Bernard joined the applause again.

“Maître Martin.” Tilyer appeared at Bernard’s side. A weary-looking woman and two towheaded boys dragged behind him. “I hope you enjoyed that.” He pointed to the pianist and singer conferring. “It’s going to be mushy love songs from here on in, and we gotta get home. Work tomorrow. Even the wife, you know.”

“Thanks for this,” Bernard said, gesturing with his head toward the stage.

“Eh, maître,” the carpenter said as he clapped Bernard’s arm again, “it will be such a victory when we finally have a living wage and the eight-hour day they were striking for at Fourmies.” Bernard took the man’s hand eagerly, shaking it in agreement.

Although she was happy that Tilyer was ignoring her, Clarie hung on his every word. If she were still living at home in Arles, her father would have taught her this worker’s song and what it meant. But in 1891 she was hard at work, far from home, studying for her degree.

Tilyer did not bother to introduce Bernard or her to his wife before he led them out the door. He seemed very much in command of his family. And utterly sure of the rightness of his ideas.

Clarie slathered her sausage with hot mustard as if that would bring some taste back into her mouth. The room was quieter now. Some couples, men and women, and women together, began to dance to the singer’s sentimental love songs. Through the smoky haze, they all looked tired and sad, sagging with drink or the day’s labors. At least it was quiet enough so she wouldn’t have to shout. “You told them about the people you knew in Lille, the weavers and the miners?”

“I mentioned it, yes, to let them know that I had long been aware of how hard life was for workers and why they need unions.”

“Did you tell them about Merckx?” She sucked in a breath. Merckx was Bernard’s oldest friend, a fanatical anarchist, who had been shot and killed outside of Aix as he was trying to flee from the army. She wondered if Bernard had decided to tell them about his role in Merckx’s attempted escape, since he was no longer a judge who had broken a “bourgeois law,” since he wanted so much to be a man among the men at the Labor Exchange.

“Oh, no, never.” He seemed shocked by the question. “You are the only one who will ever know.” He took her hand and kissed it. “My brave, loyal girl.”

No longer brave, she thought. Just busy and tired. But at least she was a wife, sharing her dear husband’s darkest, most dangerous secrets. “We must go soon,” she said, taking another sip from her stein. “I work tomorrow too.”

He raised his glass again, as if to say “Eat up and enjoy,” even as he signaled his consent to her request to depart. She sat back, determined to demonstrate her enjoyment on the day of Bernard’s unexpected triumph. And then she thought of the perfect way to cap off the evening. “You know,” she said, leaning across the table, “Papa is going to be so proud of you.” Her papa, the dear “old red” down in Arles, the man Bernard loved as a second father. Yes, he would be proud. The thought of Giuseppe Falchetti made Bernard smile broadly as they lifted their glasses for their final toast.

Once outside the café, they discovered it had rained. A delightful breeze broke the early summer heat, and the wet cobblestones, cleansed by the downpour, glistened under the gas lights.

“Ah, fresh air,” Bernard sighed.

“Yes,” she murmured as she linked her arms in his. Getting away from the smoke and crowds in the café enlivened Clarie, reminding her that she, too, had some news that day. First, though, she decided to tease her husband a bit. “Are there any women at the Labor Exchange, or is it all men?”

“I don’t think you liked Joseph Tilyer. He’s a little gruff. But a good man.”

Oh, really,
Clarie thought as she fingered the fringe on her fanciest shawl. Someone had made this. And undoubtedly it had been a woman. “Seriously,” she said. “Are there women?”

Martin waited until after they crossed a street glittering with puddles to answer. “Not that many,” he conceded. “Our women unionists come from factories, like the big sugar factory. A few seamstresses. But most women sew at home or work in small sweatshops or….”

“Are maids and charwomen,” Clarie murmured. “I met one today,” she began. “A woman who works at our school. An Italian immigrant. She told me a terrible story about her daughters.” Clarie hesitated to say the worst. “She thinks someone has kidnapped and killed one of them.”

By the time she finished telling Francesca’s story, they had arrived at the end of the rue Rodier. They strolled in silence for a few moments, before Bernard paused in front of their building. Clarie assumed that he did not want his voice to echo in the courtyard. He tried to reassure Clarie by reminding her of the many wayward girls he had seen in his chambers and in the Paris courts. It was much, much more likely that they were runaways, he explained, than victims of kidnapping or murder. Or girls, innocent enough, trying to have some fun and not finding their way back home. If the sisters were together, he assured her, they were probably safe. He embraced her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Next week,” he counseled as he held her by her shoulders and looked into her eyes, “seek this Francesca out. I’ll bet you’ll find that her daughters have returned.”

5

M
AURA HATED LIVING WITH THE
Russian girls. Hated, hated, hated it. She punctuated her indignation with greater and greater force as she pumped the water from the public faucet in the rue de l’Arbalète. Living with the Russians was every bit as bad as living with her mother. Every one of them
chose
Maura to take out the night soil pail in the morning, clean it, pump water in the other bucket and carry it up the stairs. Why her? With her mother it was those pleading eyes, trying to make you feel guilty, and her complaining about spending all night scrubbing on her hands and knees. With the Russians it was even worse. They had had a
meeting
about it! Maura had been
delegated
to do the water-carrying,
if she was willing.
She was the strongest, they had told her, and they had to get ready for school and for their exams. Well, she’d show them, she vowed, as she carried the heavy sloshing bucket up the stairs in one hand and the empty disgusting one in the other. She’d be working before they knew it, and out of there. Then who would they “elect” to carry their water?

BOOK: The Missing Italian Girl
4.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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