Read The Summer of Katya Online
Failing to think of anything interesting or witty to say, I fell back upon the banal. “I take it you are not of the pays, Mademoiselle?” Her speech lacked the chanting twang and the sounded final e of the south.
“No.” She was silent for a moment, then she seemed to realize that a one-syllable answer was a bit brusque. “No, we came for the waters.”
“It must be inconvenient.”
She had already returned to her pleasurable reverie, so it was several moments before she said, “I’m sorry. You were saying?…”
“Oh? I see.”
Half a minute passed in silence. “I simply suggested that it must be inconvenient.”
“What must be?”
I sighed. “Living so far from the village… being here for the waters and living so far from the village.” I sincerely wished I had not entered on this topic of conversation that neither interested her nor showed me to advantage.
“We prefer it, really.”
“I suppose you don’t have to come into town every day for your regimen of the waters, then.” I said this knowing perfectly well that she did not come in every day. Salies is a very small place, and I was a romantic young man with much leisure. If she came often to Salies, I would have seen her; and if I had seen her, I would certainly have remembered her.
“No, not every day. In fact…” She smiled a greeting to an old peasant we were passing on the road, and he lifted his chin in the crisp Basque salute that is as much dismissal as it is greeting. Then she turned again to me. “In fact, we don’t come in at all.”
“When I told you we were here to take the waters, I was lying.”
“Lying?” I smiled. “Do you make a practice of lying?”
She nodded thoughtfully. “It’s often the easiest thing to do, and sometimes the kindest. It is true that we are here for reasons of health, and to avoid unnecessary questions I say we are taking the waters.”
“I see. But what—” I stopped short and laughed. “I was going to indulge in one of those unnecessary questions.”
She laughed with me. “I’m sure you were. Ah! We have arrived. That lane to the right.”
The grassy, rutted condition of the tree-lined lane attested to its long period of disuse before the Trevilles occupied the house. As we approached the ancient stone heap called Etcheverria we passed along the crumbling wall of a derelict garden grown rank with weeds among which a few volunteer flowers struggled in stunted bloom, reminders of the passing hand of man. Twice the horse jerked aside nervously.
“It’s haunted, you know,” she said with a smile.
“And you don’t mind living in a haunted house?”
“No, not the house. The garden. Local tradition says the garden is haunted.” She cocked her head thoughtfully and added, “Well, perhaps the house is haunted as well. Most houses are… in one way or another.”
“That’s an interesting observation. But Dr. Freud would contend that it is most people, not most houses, that are haunted… in one way or another.”
She nodded. “Yes, I know.”
I was genuinely surprised. And fascinated. “You have read Dr. Freud?”
“Yes. After I had learned what I wanted to know about anatomy.” She laughed. “One leads to the other, I suppose. First you learn how the various bits function, then you wonder why they bother to.”
We turned in at the sagging gate. It was not necessary to tie up the horse, as she was an experienced doctor’s mare used to standing calmly in the traces. By the time I walked around to offer her a hand down, Katya had already begun to descend on her own. My clumsy attempt to give un-needed assistance and her last-minute effort to accept the titular support of my guiding hand created a moment of awkward grappling that made us both laugh.
“This is the stuff of low comedy,” she said.
“Or of high romance,” I added.
She smiled up at me. “No. Only low comedy, I think.”
“Well, perhaps you’re right. That’s the first time I ever danced with a woman who wasn’t—” I am sure I must have blushed to my ears as I realized that my hand still rested on her waist. I pulled it back quickly.
She lead the way towards the house. “A woman who wasn’t… what?” she asked over her shoulder.
How could I say: who wasn’t wearing stays? My palm still felt the indescribably exciting texture of soft flesh under firm fabric. “Who wasn’t…” I cleared my throat. “…a member of my family.”
She glanced at me sideways. “I don’t believe that.”
“Good. I often lie, you see. It’s the easiest thing to do, and sometimes the kindest.”
She chuckled. “All right.”
The faade of the house was in poor repair; rising damp had rotted the plaster in places, revealing rough-cut stone beneath. As we stepped into the central hall I was aware of a dank chill that must have made the place most uncomfortable in winter.
“Katya?” a man’s voice called from a room off the principal hall.
“Yes, Paul,” she answered. “I have the doctor with me. Help is on its way, if you can manage to cling to life for a moment longer.”
The man laughed in full voice as she motioned me to follow her into the salon.
“Paul, this is Dr. Montjean. Dr. Montjean, my poor battered brother.”
As he rose from a chaise, his right arm bound against his chest by strips of linen, my astonishment was undisguised.
They were twins. Identical in every feature: the full mouths, the high foreheads, the prominent cheekbones, the firm chins, the thick chestnut hair. The features were identical, but the effect was startlingly different, as the same elements were interpreted in the context of their sexes. What in her was a handsome beauty appeared frail and almost effeminate in him. What in her movements was grace, in his seemed affectation. An unkind critic might have described her as having, in a way of speaking, a bit too much face; while he had too little. This difference-within-similarity was nowhere more evident than in their eyes. The same almond shape and slightly crooked set, the same clear pale grey made startling by dark lush lashes, but they created totally opposite impressions. She had a gentleness of glance that seemed to invite one to look into the springs of her being. His glance was metallic and impenetrable. Light glinted on the surface of his eyes, while it glowed from deep within hers. Her eyes were bridges; his barriers.
They laughed together at my frank surprise. “It’s a tired old prank, Doctor, not warning people in advance that we are twins,” the brother said as he pressed my hand in that awkward upside-down way of the left-handed handshake. “But we never weary of the effect it has on people the first time they see us together. Forgive us for amusing ourselves at your expense, but there is so little to divert one in this out-of-the-way bled.”
I sought to recover my aplomb by assuming a professional tone. “Your sister tells me you fell from your bicycle.”
He glanced at her and grinned. “Well, I suppose you could put it that way if you wanted to. Actually—”
“—I’ll see to a little refreshment,” she interposed quickly. “A cup of tisane, Doctor?”
As she left the room, the brother raised his voice, pursuing her with his words. “That’s one way of putting it, Doctor. Actually, my good sister knocked me from my machine!”
“Rubbish!” she called back from down the hall.
He laughed softly and shook his head as I began undoing the rather expertly wrapped bandage. He winced at first contact but spoke on as I made my examination. “It’s true, you know. She’s vicious in competition. We were having a little race to the bottom of the lane and back and– Argh! Jesus, Doctor! If you are going to ask if that hurt, the answer is yes!”
“I wonder if that’s enough? Well, I got ahead of her in the race by the mild subterfuge of starting before she was ready. I had reached the end of the lane and was on my way back, and what did she do? She– Ah! Damn it, man! Was your last post with the Inquisition? It’s broken, I assume?”
“Rotten luck. Well, as I passed her on the way back she kicked out at me and drove me into the garden wall. Just like that. The Jockey Club would certainly have disqualified her.”
“The Jockey Club? You are Parisian then?”
He lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “Why, yes. I’m amazed you’ve heard of it. From your accent, I assumed you were from hereabouts.”
“I was unaware that I had an accent.” Actually, I had been at great pains while studying in Paris to lose my singsong Basque accent, as its rustic implications had been a source of ridicule among my fellow students.
“Oh, it’s not much of an accent, I suppose. More a matter of rhythm than pronunciation. I am something of a student of accents, as nothing is so illustrative of breeding and class as customs of speech.”
Paul Treville himself had a tone of speech, a certain nasal laxity, that I recognized as upper-class Parisian, a sound I used to resent because it bespoke wealth and comfort while I had had to work and struggle for my education. It was a pattern of speech that I had always thought of not as an accent, but as an affectation.
“If I were called upon to describe your accent, Doctor, I would say it was the sound of a man who had worked on losing his southern chant and had very nearly succeeded.”
It was, of course, the accuracy of his evaluation that irritated me. We all desire to be understood, but no one enjoys being obvious. I am afraid my annoyance was not well concealed, for he smiled in a way that told me he took pleasure in baiting me.
“You’re rather young to be a doctor, aren’t you?”
“I’m only just out of training.”
“I see. I do hope I’m not your first patient.”
“You’d be better advised to hope you’re not my last. Don’t move about. I have to bind your arm to your chest to immobilize it. It may hurt a bit.”
“I’m sure it will. So you’ve heard of the Jockey Club, have you? I dare to assume you were not a member.”
“You assume correctly. My memories of Paris are those of the impoverished student—of that bohemian life that is more pleasant to talk about than to live. The cost of membership in your club—even assuming I had found a sponsor, which is most unlikely—would have paid for all of my education.”
“Yes, I daresay. But it may have been a better investment in the long run. You’d have met a better sort of people there.”
“The important people?”
He smiled at the archness of my tone, but I evaporated the smile with a firmer than necessary tug on the bandage.
“Ah! You do know that hurts, I suppose?”
“You appear to suffer under the delusion that the only important people are those who sweat in the vineyards, Doctor. The tinkers, the masons, the plowboys, the… leeches. You overlook the great social value of the aristocracy.”
“And what do you believe that to be?” I asked atonically as I busied myself with wrapping the gauze bandage around his smooth, hairless chest.
“Ever since the cultural suicide of the Revolution, it has been the role of my class to serve the bourgeoisie as object lessons against the evils of idle dissipation. I have approached my duties with admirable diligence, if I say so myself, devoting myself to gambling, target-shooting, listless promiscuity, vacuous badinage—all the traditional occupations of the young man of the world.”
“How boring that must be for you.”
“It is, rather.”
“And for your interlocutors.”
“Ah, the lad has fangs!”
“Do try to stand still.”
“Now, my father has gone about being useless in a more oblique way. He is something of a gentleman scholar. But I’m afraid his uselessness goes unnoticed and unappreciated, as uselessness is the norm in academics.”
“And your sister?”
“Katya? Ah, there you touch a sore point—do you enjoy puns?”
“Pity. Yes, Katya is something of a disgrace to her class. Given half a chance, I’m afraid she would involve herself in all sorts of uplifting activities. Fortunately, there are no opportunities for her to indulge herself in this forgotten hole, so our family tradition of uselessness goes unblemished. Well, Doctor? What’s the diagnosis? Am I to toil away the remainder of my life a hopeless cripple?”
“Not on a physical level. So long as your arm and shoulder are kept immobilized, nature will mend you. But it may be a month or so before you have full use of it.”
“Bones mend at their own pace, Monsieur Treville.”
He looked at me quizzically. “Treville? Did Katya tell you our name was Treville?”
“Why yes. Isn’t it?”
He thrust out his lower lip and waved his free hand carelessly. “Oh, of course. Treville. Hm-m-m. I rather like the sound of it, don’t you?”
I felt I was being made a figure of fun, and there are few things less supportable for a young man whose fragile dignity is not buttressed by accomplishments. My resentment was manifest in the brusque, silent way I finished binding him up and in the cold tone of, “There you are, Monsieur Treville. Now. Are there any other injuries? I’m a bit pressed for time.”
“Oh, are you really?” Paul Treville smiled and raised an eyebrow. “You know, Doctor, it has always amused me how people in your profession dare to assume a superior attitude on the basis of nothing more than having avoided going into trade by mucking about for a few years with chemicals and pus and fetal pigs in brine. You seem to forget that you make your money by selling your services to anybody who has the money.”
“The same could be said of many professionals.”
“Yes, indeed. Whores, for instance.”
I stared at him silently for a long moment. Then I repeated coldly, “Are there any other injuries? Dizziness? Nausea? Headache?”
“Only the odd scrape and bruise. But I am sure they will heal in time. The passage of time, it would appear, is your idea of a universal panacea. Have you ever considered sharing your fee with Father Time?”
I was on the verge of replying in kind when Katya returned bearing a silver tray with teapot and cups. “Shall we take it on the terrace?”
Still stung by her brother’s attitude, I considered saying that I had too busy a schedule to dawdle over tea, but two things prevented me. The first was the thought that my languid condition when Katya first found me in the park might make this sound ridiculous. The second was the fact that I was in love with Katya.