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Authors: Barbara Pope

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BOOK: The Missing Italian Girl
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By the time she reached the third floor, the hardest part had passed, and so had some of her ire. She pounded on the door and called out her name. Vera, the tall blond one, opened it and stepped aside, inviting Maura into a room that was as drab and depressing as the one she and Angela had left behind on the other side of Paris: one bed shared by the two Russian girls, one table, one little chest of drawers, one pot-belly stove for cooking and heating. Their shawls and cloaks hung on nails protruding from a scaly greenish gray wall. Across from it, two shelves held a few dented pots and pans, and their bread and lard, provisions that could never be high enough to keep away the bugs and mice.

The only thing that was really different was what they hung on the walls. At home, Maura’s mother had nailed a picture of the sad-eyed Virgin Mary, with a crown of thorns circling her heart, over her bed. Right beside a crucifix. They gave Maura the creeps. Who needed to see all that suffering when you lived it every day?

Over the Russians’ bed there were three watercolors of distant places, beautiful places they had left behind. Maura plopped down on the bed next to Angela, who, like the good girl she was, had already folded up the blanket the two of them had slept on. Maura twisted her mouth to one side of her face and shook her head. She could not understand why rich people chose to live like poor people. Maybe all Russians were crazy. Except, Maura sighed, as she watched Vera and Lidia, washing up, sharing the water they had poured into the basin, they didn’t seem crazy.

Maura scuffed her shoe along the rough wooden floor. She knew in her heart that Vera and Lidia weren’t really so bad. As soon as they were done studying on the first night, they had spent a long time talking to her and Angela, trying to figure out how to keep them away from the police. In fact, she mused, they were like Pyotr. They looked in your eyes when they asked questions, as if they cared about your answers. They had even gotten her to tell them her most secret ambition, something she had not even dared to tell Angela. And they were smart. They were going to be doctors. They knew things. They knew people. On Sunday, two days after she and Angela had shown up, Vera brought them new identity cards, from “a friend.” Vera and Lidia even knew the best way out of the city, in case she and Angela had to flee. Still they couldn’t stay with the Russian girls forever. It was Wednesday. It had already been five nights.
Where was Pyotr?

Armed with her notebooks, Vera bent down to give Maura and Angela a kiss good-bye. Lidia, the short, dark one, didn’t even have to bend. “We’ll be back by dinner,” she said, “right after our classes. Don’t let anyone in except Pyotr. And if you are nervous, you can watch the street from the window. Remember the back door down the hall. You can make it out of here before the police get up the stairs.”

Angela reached to give her a hug. “Thank you,” she whispered.

As soon as the Russians had left, Maura got up, put her hands on her hips, and stood before her sister. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“We can’t.” Angela shook her head. The bruises on her face were barely perceptible in the thin light. No one would give her a second look now. Still she resisted leaving the room. “We can’t go back home,” she said in a quiet voice. “We have to wait for Pyotr.”

Impatient, Maura began to pace back and forth over the small space in front of the bed. “We can’t keep sleeping on the floor with the mice.”
At least at home they had a mattress
. “We can’t keep eating their food. We can’t hide here forever.”

“We can give them money, some of what you stole from Monsieur Barbereau.”

“Monsieur Barbereau
,” Maura repeated sarcastically. How could she call that bastard monsieur? “We didn’t steal it. It was ours. He owed it to us. I’m sure,” she added less confidently. “Anyway, he’s dead. You can’t steal from a dead man.”

Angela got up and took Maura by the shoulders. “Of course you can, and we did.”

“Okay, so that’s done. Nothing we can do about it.” Maura turned toward the window and bit her lip. Angela wasn’t the only one who had nightmares about that bastard’s bloody skull. And the squishy thuds as Pyotr hit him twice from behind with the iron poker. And the moans, until his body stopped twitching. And the blood dripping from the side of his ugly mouth. Maura closed her eyes and held herself tight to keep from shivering. The morning’s black bread lurched in her stomach.
It was done. He’s dead. Nothing to do about it except go on living.
She wanted to shout “Stop being a ninny. What about us?” She swirled back to face her sister.

“You know,” Maura said, trying another tack, “being Russians and anarchists, Vera and Lidia could be dangerous. The police could be watching
” Maura made her eyes large, as though she really believed in this made-up peril. “Maybe there’s a bomb right under the bed,” she said, carrying on the act by lunging forward.

Angela stopped her before she could pull the blanket out and begin searching. “Maura, don’t be silly. They told us that they don’t believe in violence anymore. That it didn’t work. That they have to find another way.”

“Oh sure, your lover, the anarchist, doesn’t believe in violence, that’s why he crushed Barbereau’s skull.”

“Quiet!” Angela slapped Maura on the cheek. And then began to cry. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she sobbed as she fell down onto the bed. “I just can’t stand to think about it. And Pyotr is not my lover. How could you say such a thing?”

Well, he wants to be,
Maura thought resentfully as she rubbed her stinging cheek. She was glad that Angela was suffering more than she from that slap. Angela, Angelina, the little angel. The one everyone loves most. Well, where would they be if she, Maura, hadn’t thought to cover the little angel’s mouth after Barbereau fell to the floor like an angry stuck bull. If she hadn’t thought to say out loud for anyone who might be listening through the windows in their courtyard, “Oh, thank God, you stopped hitting my sister.” If she hadn’t given Pyotr a sign to bar the door until they figured out what to do. She was the strong one, the smart one. Her chest heaved up and down. She felt like crying too, but she wasn’t going to give in.

“All right, all right, so they’re not violent. They’ve done nothing wrong. But haven’t they told us, just like Pyotr did, about police spies everywhere? Didn’t they say sometimes they think they are being followed?”

“We must wait for Pyotr,” Angela insisted.

Maura rolled her eyes and let out a loud sigh, hoping to convey all her impatient disgust with her ever-obedient, docile sister. Well, she, Maura, had to do something.

She turned to the table and opened the book where Vera had hidden her new identity card. She smiled, admiring it. The Russians had let her choose a new name and a new age. She was no longer Maura Lucia Laurenzano, age 17, abandoned daughter of Luigi, the accordionist, and unloved child of Francesca, the charwoman. She was no longer the “dark one,” the “Moor” who had aroused the suspicions of her tall blond father the very day she was born. No longer the one to blame. She raised the card to her lips and kissed it. She had become Albertine Hélène LeChevalier, age 20, ready and able to fulfill her ambition. The Russians had tried to talk her into calling herself something more common. But she wanted to sound more high-born. What she hadn’t told them was that LeChevalier, the knight, was in honor of Pyotr.

She wrinkled the card a little, like they had told her, to make it seem worn, and pressed it out over the heavy medical book with the palm of her hand. Reaching down under the table, she pulled out one of the bundles Angela and she had brought with them on that fatal night. She paused when she glimpsed Pyotr’s clothes reverently folded on top of hers. She would have lifted his shirt and breathed in his scent, if Angela had not been watching. Then, almost crying out in frustration, she retied the heavy sack and pushed it back in place. Why hadn’t she thought: Maura Laurenzano didn’t own anything suitable for an Albertine.

Clenching her teeth, she straightened up and went to the chest of drawers, yanking them open and searching.

“What are you doing?” Angela jumped off the bed to stop her.

“Looking for something nice to wear.”

“You can’t take their clothes.”

“I’m only
them. And besides, they liked the shirtwaist blouses we brought with us. We can trade. I’ll leave them all here.” Only she had had the presence of mind to grab a few of the stiff cotton garments they had slaved over.

“Maura!” Angela stood behind her, breathing down her neck.

“Angela,” Maura said, keeping her back to her sister, refusing to argue, “I’m going to look for a job.”

“You can’t. Someone might—”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to cross the river. I know what I’m doing,” she said as she pulled out an ice-blue blouse that was soft and silky. She laid it on top of the dresser and kept looking until she found a matching satin bag that she could hang from her wrist, and a brooch of emerald stones. She held the blouse up to her chest and smiled. When she had asked Vera and Lidia, ever so casually, if they had been to one of the grand department stores, they admitted that they had gone to the Bon Marché, to try to understand why some people succumbed to their desire for
, rather than yearning for freedom and equality. How had they gotten there, Maura had asked, even more casually. And they explained how you could walk, for a long way, or take the omnibus. Because she had been smart enough to go through the dead Barbereau’s pockets before they put the stones in them, Maura had money for the omnibus.

“Maura, you can’t do this. Not without permission,” Angela pleaded.

“If they come back before me, let them choose one of the shirtwaists,” Maura sniffed with a put-on hauteur, rehearsing for her new role in life.

Then she proceeded to change from her frayed floral blouse, pin up her hair, and attach the brooch, even though the Russians, being who they were, willing to be poor, willing to be spinsters, did not have a looking glass in their room.

Maura wended her way up toward the Place du Panthéon. She knew nothing about the massive gray building that loomed in her path except that it held the tombs of famous people. She couldn’t imagine why anyone cared. Seeing one dead man had been quite enough for her. That gloomy mood lifted as she approached her destination. Even before she circled around to the front of the building, she heard the joyful hubbub of youth and privilege. A few handsome young men in straw hats sprawled along the low steps of the Panthéon, enjoying the sun, reading, talking, and laughing. The ornate, columned façade hovered over a broad street dotted with lively cafés spilling outdoors and tinkling with dishes and silver. Since the omnibus was not in sight yet, Maura had time to observe what it was like to be a student in the famous Latin Quarter. She peered into dusty old shops where law books or medical books or history books were piled high, all the way up to the ceiling. Enough to give you a headache, she thought, turning toward the open street. She pressed on her growling stomach as she passed a woman selling fried potatoes from a cart. This smell and the aroma of coffee were so tempting. But she couldn’t. She had to keep her gloves clean and be sure to drip nothing on Vera’s blouse.

Maura wrinkled her brow as she observed three women sitting by themselves in a café. They were probably either foreigners or
, the working-class girls who befriended students in order to be treated to a good time. She’d never be a grisette, giving herself over to someone else for a pittance. Nor would she want to become depressingly earnest, like Vera or Lidia. Ordinary Frenchwomen did not go to the Sorbonne or Law School or any other university in Paris. And yet. Maura paused to stare down at a pimply-faced boy poring over his books at a table. Maybe that wasn’t right. As far as she could see
, he
was quite ordinary, and yet
was probably studying to be a lawyer or a doctor or … someone else rich. Men were so lucky.

Just then an omnibus pulled by three bay horses rounded the corner, and she hurried to the stop. She paid full fare to sit inside rather than climb the curving ladder to the open air at the top. She was not going to take the chance of mussing her hair or her outfit, even though there was hardly a breeze. The day had already turned sultry. A gentleman got up and offered his seat. After nodding solemnly as she took it, she made it her business to ignore him and stare out the window. They rumbled through the broad Boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain, both crowded with students and loungers, enjoying themselves at canopied cafés or window-shopping under leafy trees. It was so pretty here. Not at all like the crooked, stinking, treeless street where Maura lived with her mother and sister. She sighed. She had seldom left her old neighborhood.

But one such rare journey had served as a revelation. Maura’s mother had dragged her reluctant daughters to the central city to read the job notices posted at Saint-Eustache. She had hoped to find better positions for all of them. As a special treat, she decided to show Angela and Maura the windows of La Samaritaine, a grand new department store. Even though the sign said “free entry,” Maura’s mother had been too backward to walk in, and Angela had been too shy. Maura smiled, remembering how she had left them behind to enter a shiny new world, illuminated by electricity and filled with luxury. Spellbinding light fell from the ceiling in clusters of flowery glass chandeliers. Maura strolled under their magic through rows and rows of beautiful things: jewelry cascading down toward counters, scarves fluttering in a rainbow of colors, dresses and blouses and skirts and cloaks parading everywhere she looked. When she reached to touch one of the scarves, a clerk, a girl not much older than she, waved her away.

That’s when Maura noticed them, the clerks, in crisp new dresses, standing behind the counters, living in this clean, bright world. At the very moment that she realized they were looking down their noses at her, she decided that someday she would become one of them.

“Albertine LeChevalier,” she whispered. She needed to get used to that name and learn how to stick
nose up in the air. “I am Albertine.”

BOOK: The Missing Italian Girl
3.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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