Read The Summer of Katya Online
“I’ll be there in the morning. But… I may want to take off a bit of time in the afternoon.”
“Ah-h-h, I see.” His voice was moist with conspiracy.
“Mlle Treville will be coming into town,” I explained needlessly.
“Ah-h-h, I see.”
“No, you don’t see!” I felt at one time both anger at his implication of wrongdoing and a childish sense of pleasure at being teased about her… as though she were mine to be teased about. “She has to fetch her bicycle,” I clarified.
“Ah-h-h, I see. Yes, of course. Her bicycle. To be sure.”
“I offered to bring it out to her, but she… I don’t know why I am bothering to explain all this to you.”
“Confession is good for the spirit, Montjean. It empties the soul, making space for more sin.”
I rose as the village worthies arrived and excused myself for having to run along without the privilege of their conversation.
After scribbling sketches and impressions in my journal and finding myself several times frozen in midsentence, staring through the page and smiling at nothing, I blew out my lamp and lay back against the bolster. The details of the room slowly emerged through the blackness as my eyes accustomed themselves to the moonglow that softly illuminated the curtain. All that night I drifted in and out of a sleep lightly brushed with images and imaginings that were not quite dreams.
* * *
Incredible though it later seemed, I woke the next morning without a trace of Katya in my mind, without the slightest sense of anticipation, beyond a general feeling of good will and buoyancy. It was not until I had made my toilet and was crossing the square to the caf where I took morning brioches and coffee that the thought that she was coming into town for her bicycle slipped casually into my mind, then leapt, as it were, from thin script to bold italics in an instant, and a smile brightened my face. It did not occur to me to use the word love in assessing my feelings. Katya had, to be sure, been either in my thoughts or just beyond the rim of them since I left her the day before, and I could recall with tactile memory the brush of her soft warm lips on my cheek. But love? No, I didn’t think of love. I was, however, ashamed to have forgotten all about her arrival for almost half an hour that morning. The lapse made me feel inconstant… unfaithful, almost.
The day crawled by, the passage of time marked only by my trivial duties and tasks, and I began to fear that she would not come after all. The deterioration of the weather increased my apprehension as single dazzling clouds, like torn meringues, sailed lazily overhead and began to pile up on the horizon, thickening to a dark pewter. Would she decide not to dare the walk into Salies? What if she arrived, then a great storm broke, making it impossible for her to return home? We would have to seek shelter somewhere. Under the arcades of the square? No. Beneath a fine old tree? No. The gazebo hidden away at the end of the river park?
… perhaps… my room?
No! No. What nonsense! What an animal you are!
The gazebo then. Yes. The heavy drops would drum on the zinc roof, making conversation impossible. Alone and screened from the world by a silver curtain of rain, we would sit in silence… sharing the silence… holding hands… not needing conversation… no, better yet, our relationship beyond conversation…
“Would it be unreasonable of me to ask when you’re going to finish that prescription, Montjean?” Doctor Gros startled me by asking. “Or is there something beyond that window that has a prior claim on your attention?”
I muttered some apology or another and plied my pestle with unnecessary vigor.
Midafternoon the wind changed, the clouds were herded away to the west, and the sunlight returned—quite inconsiderately, it seemed to me.
The day wore on and the slanting rays of the sun had plunged the arcades on the west side of the square into deep shadow when, for the thousandth time, my attention strayed from my pharmaceutical drudgery and I looked out my window in worried anticipation. She was just passing out of the dense shadow, and her white dress seemed to burst into brightness as she walked with her exuberant stride towards the clinic, hatless, but carrying a closed parasol. My heart twisted with pleasure.
* * *
As I approached her on the square, still tugging on my linen jacket, a silly smile took possession of my face and would not release it, although I was sure every eye in the village followed my slightest gesture. She smiled too, but hers was charming where mine was inane.
There was a caf frequented by the lady patients, as it offered a thin pallid liquid that claimed to be English tea (then quite fashionable) served with small cakes which, as they were dry and tasteless, were assumed to be quintessentially British. I suggested that we take some refreshment there, after her long walk.
“Exactly four thousand two hundred thirty-three paces, from my door to this spot,” she specified.
“Exactly?” I asked in a tone of bantering admonishment.
She shrugged. “For all I know, it might be. Frankly, I wouldn’t care to sit among the ladies and nibble at biscuits. May I have a citron press somewhere were we can sit in the sun?”
“Of course. In fact my mood is so expansive that I might even offer you two citrons presss.”
I am sure it was not just my imagination that the pairs of ladies strolling the square or sitting at the “English” caf glanced rather often in the direction of our table, then looked away with studied indifference as they exchanged brief comments. And I felt there was a tone of insinuation, if not downright collaboration, in the excessive graciousness with which our waiter served us. But my annoyance at these intruders evaporated in the pleasure I took in our conversation, which might have appeared to an eavesdropping stranger to be banal and commonplace, but which seemed to me to be filled with significant things unsaid, meaningful gestures withheld, touching intimacies unexpressed. I asked after her brother, her father, and her ghost, all of whom, it appeared, were thriving—although that may not be the mot juste in the case of a ghost. Every moment after the first quarter hour I dreaded that she would say it was time for her to return home. But she seemed perfectly content to sit, sipping her citron press, while drawing me out with questions about the deprivations of my youth, my struggle for an education, my medical and literary aspirations. I spoke almost without pause for the better part of an hour, coming to the conclusion, in my youthful egoism, that she was a delightful and entertaining conversationalist.
“It’s fascinating,” she said. “I’ve never known anyone so concerned with the future as you. My father lives in the distant past, and my brother and I have always lived from moment to moment, or at most from day to day. We never talk about the future. I suppose I have always thought of the future as a great heap of tomorrows each waiting its turn to become today.”
“How then do you make plans?”
“Plans? We don’t. That is… we don’t plan in the sense that we seek to achieve things, or become something. We do, of course, try our best to avoid embarrassments… difficulties.”
“Difficulties of what kind?”
She looked at me over the rim of her glass. “Oh, of all kinds.”
“Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with your brother.”
“I was not aware there was anything wrong with Paul.”
“Maybe if he had met a few difficulties along the way, he wouldn’t be so bored with life, so superior in his attitudes.”
“Aren’t you being a bit of a snob?”
“Me? A snob?”
“Not everyone has had a life of struggle to exercise him and make him strong. Not everyone is free to make a career, to anticipate a future.” Her smile was tinged with a sadness that drew my tenderest feelings towards her. Then, with a faint shift in the corners of her eyes, the smile became a look of serious examination as she searched the features of my face one by one in a way that quite discomfited me. “Dr. Montjean, are you aware that you are handsome?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Most handsome men know it only too well, and their confident posturing is a nuisance. But you don’t seem to be aware of your beauty. It’s an attractive ignorance.”
I shook my head, nonplussed. “Young women shouldn’t call young men beautiful.”
“Why not? Well… it isn’t done.”
“I don’t care about what’s done and not done.”
“Nevertheless… and furthermore it’s embarrassing.”
“Is it? Yes, I suppose it is. Well, I’m afraid we may have a more serious kind of embarrassment coming our way.” With a lift of her chin she indicated the sky, and I looked up to discover that while I had been absorbed in our chat, a shift of wind had brought the pewter-bellied clouds back over the village. Puffs of cool wind began to eddy up little dust swirls on the cobbled square.
“It looks as though we shall have to wait the rain out,” I said, the image of the gazebo coming to mind.
“Oh, but I can’t! Father doesn’t know I’ve come into the village. He would be distressed not to find me home, when he emerges from his ‘work’ for his tea.”
“But… surely you can’t ride your bicycle back in the rain!”
“I don’t see that I have any choice. I’ll make a race of it and, who knows, perhaps I can beat the rain back.”
“I can’t allow it.”
She looked at me with comic surprise. “You can’t allow it?”
“I didn’t mean that exactly.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“Listen. Tell you what. I’ll get the clinic’s sulky and tie your machine on behind. And we’ll race the rain together.”
“But… even if we won, surely you would get drenched on the way back.”
“I don’t mind. In fact, I’d rather enjoy it.”
She looked at me quizzically. “You know, I believe you would. Very well. Let’s race the rain.”
* * *
When I asked Doctor Gros if I could use the sulky, he turned his eyes to the ceiling. “Aiding and abetting, the judges will call it! Accomplice before the fact! My career will be in ruins. My reputation will be… well, my career anyway will be damaged. I don’t suppose it’s any use to appeal to your sense of honor, but you might at least—Montjean!” he called after me. “You could have the decency to hear me out, you know!”
* * *
Katya and I came within three minutes of winning our race against the weather, but from the point of view of our appearance when we arrived at the courtyard of Etcheverria, we might as well have lost by half an hour. We were soaked to the skin, as her white silk parasol was comically ineffective.
Just as we turned up the poplar lane, the sky broke open and a brash of warm plump rain burst upon us. By the time I reined in at the courtyard, the leather of the rig was glistening with water, the mare was steaming, and Katya and I looked as though we had just been pulled from a river.
Laughing at each other’s appearance, we entered the central hall, wiping the rain from our faces. My linen jacket hung grey and limp from my shoulders, and my trousers were heavy from waist to knee. For her part, Katya seemed delighted with the adventure, though her dress was sodden and wisps of hair were plastered to her temples and forehead. I suppose we were rather noisy in our excitement, for Paul Treville snatched open the door to the salon and glared at us in fury.
“Katya! For the love of God! Father is working!”
Our delight collapsed in an instant, and I stepped forward. “It’s all my fault, Monsieur Tre—”
“I had assumed as much, Doctor. Katya, what could you have been thinking of?”
“Really, Paul…” Her voice trailed off, and her whole demeanor seemed to shrink into a most uncharacteristic humility.
“We’ll discuss it later,” the brother said. Then he turned and stared through me stonily. “When the good doctor has seen fit to deny us his company.”
“Before I go, Monsieur Treville, I must tell you that I resent your tone, not only on my own behalf, but on that of Katya.”
“What right have you to resent anything I do or say? And by what right do you address my sister by her given name?”
I turned to Katya to make my farewells and was struck by her uncertain, deflated attitude. But it was her slight movement away from me as I began to speak that stung me and left me with nothing to say. I turned back to her brother. “You are quite right, of course, to say that I shouldn’t address Mlle Treville by her first name. It was the lapse of the moment. But I assure you, sir, that—”
“You need assure me, Doctor, of nothing… save for your intention to depart immediately.”
With my whole being, I yearned to hit him in the face. But I resisted for Katya’s sake. Gathering together what dignity my drenched condition and pounding pulse permitted, I bowed curtly and went to the door.
“Just a moment, Doctor!” It is impossible to describe the sudden change in Paul Treville’s tone of voice from that of the haughty, outraged aristocrat to one of concerned fatigue. “Just a moment, if you please.” He closed his eyes and drew a long breath. “Do forgive me. I have been ungracious. Katya, could you look to that new girl in the kitchen? Father will want his supper soon, and she has the appearance of one who would open an egg with a battering ram.”
Without a word to me, without even looking at me, Katya left the hall, her head down and her shoulders rounded.
“And Katya?” Paul arrested her at the entrance to the housekeeping quarters, where she stopped without turning around. He smiled sadly. “Do warm yourself at the fire, and dry your hair. You look frightful.” She nodded and departed. He looked after her for a moment and sighed; then he turned to me. “Would you join me in the salon, Dr. Montjean? I’ve a fire going, and you look as though you could do with a little drying out yourself.
“Brandy?” he asked, following me into the salon.
“Thank you, no,” I said stiffly, uncomfortable and confused by his sudden change of attitude, and even more disturbed by Katya’s humble, almost servile, reaction to his burst of anger. The fire in the marble hearth was inviting, but I did not approach it, still too angry with him to accept any hospitality at his hands.
“Please sit down,” he said as he poured out two large brandies, not having heard, or choosing to ignore, my refusal. With only his left hand free, his empty right sleeve pinned against his bound shoulder, he carried the brandy glasses rather precariously between his fingers. I accepted the glass, not wishing to appear petty, and when he took a chair beside the fire, there was nothing for me to do but join him, my chill skin absorbing the welcome warmth, whether I wanted it or not.