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Authors: Jessica Brockmole

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I didn't tell Clare how the fight was all my fault.

That spring, Papa had just got his commission for
Les Contes de Ma Mère l'Oye.
He'd spend all day in the tumble-down chapel courtyard, sketching remnants of knights and ladies pressed into the stained glass, while I ran from one corner to the other with a makeshift sword, hunting for trolls and monsters. He'd be so wrapped up in his studies that he wouldn't even come for his midday potage. Maman worried and buzzed around him, bringing coffee and sandwiches, keeping his pencils sharpened, making sure the gardener didn't touch a blade in the courtyard. Even though she was halfway through a marble bust, she put aside her own work—her chisels and mallets and rasps—to concentrate on his.

It was one afternoon, where early violets were pushing up along the edges of the shadows, that Papa became frustrated. He was starting in on the first canvas. There was nothing in the middle but a few faint lines and whorls, measured out with his thumb, but I trusted him. Tomorrow those scattered lines would be something wonderful—a princess or a lion or a castle arching to the sky. But at the moment, Papa slumped in his chair, glaring at the canvas.

“Papa, why have you stopped drawing?” I asked. I was crouched by a hole with my wooden sword, harrying the snake inside. “What's the matter?” In truth, he hadn't been drawing all morning.

He muttered an incomprehensible string of something. When he wanted to swear at a canvas, he did it in English.

I shrugged. In the end, the snake hole was more interesting than grown-up words. “You should ask Maman,” I said. After all, it's what I always did when I had a problem. “She can help.”

But Papa waved his hand dismissively. “She wouldn't know. This is a question of art. It is not for her to understand.”

Later I went to find Maman, to show her a newly wobbly tooth and to tell her about the snake's valiant escape. She sat in her studio, high up in the east tower, which, gradually, was becoming less and less of a studio. The piles of unsold sculptures that usually lined the walls were gone, tucked away somewhere in the château. Her old, scarred worktable had been moved against the wall and covered with a green blotting pad. She sat at the improvised desk with her book of household accounts, adding up columns of figures. A stack of letters sat in the corner, awaiting Papa's signature.

She pressed a kiss to my forehead but shooed me away. “Maman is working,
mon poulet.

I stepped away, kicking the edge of the rug. It covered up the chips of stone that had always littered the floor before. “I'm sorry you aren't an artist any longer.”

“Of course I am.” She licked a finger and turned a page in her ledger. “I'm just busy with other things today.”

“I don't think so.” I wiggled my tooth. “Papa said that you aren't. He said that you don't understand art the way he does.”

The row that followed, out in the chapel courtyard, shook down three panes of stained glass. The next morning Maman was gone.

I moped around that summer, hiding in her wardrobe and hoarding marbles. I suppose Papa was moping, too, though he was always at his easel. He painted in nothing but blues and blacks. I learned later that he'd been writing her letter after letter, pleading in English for her to come back to him. She resolutely stayed in Perthshire at her parents' house.

Since the whole mess was exactly my fault, I knew I had to be the one to fix it. It could be a quest, like Sir Gawain, I decided. I was old enough to be a hero. With Maman's sewing scissors, I cut off my long curls and left them on her dressing table as an offering. I found a dented helmet in Papa's costume box and, armed with my wooden sword and an old palette for a shield, I set off through the woods in the general direction of Scotland.

I didn't get far before my feet went right out from under me. Deep in the woods, I'd found a well, dry and forgotten beneath the leaves, and I tumbled down.

I was far enough from Mille Mots that Papa couldn't hear my calls, though I shouted myself hoarse. The stones crumbled back down on top of me when I tried to climb up. The skies darkened and I swore I heard wolves howling. I stayed awake all night, hands crossed over my head, until Alain, checking his snares early in the morning, found me, crying, shivering, and bruised up and down. He brought Papa, who took off his jacket and hauled me up with a rope. I had nothing worse than a broken ankle, but Maman was on the next boat. Papa spent two days filling in that well himself and was once more her
cher Claude.
I never did set off on a quest again.

I didn't tell Clare all of this, as we stood in the hallway in front of Papa's portraits. She'd noticed the faded ribbon around my wrist in the painting and that made me feel vulnerable enough.

I think she knew that. She didn't say anything, didn't touch the painting again, but she moved very close, so close I could hear her breathing.

“Maman came back, though,” I said without thinking, then felt awful for saying so. Because for Clare, her mother hadn't.

Her face was closed. “You must have needed her so much, she felt it across the miles.” She tipped her chin up at the portrait. “The way you kept that ribbon close, so close that you forgot all about it while you posed.”

“I didn't know Papa saw all of that.” The ribbon, the marbles, the boy frustrated that his
maman
had disappeared.

“I told you that art is more than circles and lines. More than branches and fruit and piles of stone. It can tell a
story.

“Then what is your story?” I asked.

“Maybe not so different than the one your father captured here. Though instead of a ribbon, I have a green dress.”

The one she was wearing now, far too elegant for a fifteen-year-old girl. It had been her mother's, I knew now.

She turned serious eyes to me. “Luc,” she said, and I realized it was the first time she'd called me by my first name. “Do you think she'll return?”

“What?”

“You wished as hard as you could, and your mother returned for you.” Her eyes glistened, but I knew she wouldn't cry. “Do you think mine will? Will she come for me here?”

I knew Maman had been writing to friends, to colleagues, to old classmates from the School of Art, seeing if anyone had an address for Maud Ross. “Not a word from her,” I overheard Maman say to Papa. “What are we to think?”

I wished I could tell Clare that everything would be fine, that her mother was safe and near and missing her madly. “Mademoiselle,” I said. “Clare.” Her eyes flickered, and I knew it was the first time I'd used her name, too. “She left home to draw her story. All you can do is draw your own and hope that she sees it one day.”

She swallowed a sigh, but she nodded.

“But don't wait for that. Don't wait for her or for anyone to see what you've created.” Papa had always been too expectant of critics, and Maman too shattered by indifference. “Draw it for you. Draw it because it's your Something Important.”

“Something Important? I'm not sure I'll ever find that.” She rubbed at a smudge of pencil on the side of her hand. “Why do we choose to draw what we draw?” she asked. I wasn't sure she wanted an answer. “Aren't they the things that speak to our heart?”

Once I thought it was nothing but tennis that spoke to my heart. But standing in the east hallway, with Clare standing in front of me, waiting, I wasn't so sure. I pressed my pocket, where I had the Conté crayons wrapped in the handkerchief. My fingers itched to trace her face. “I think they must be.”

T
he next weekend it rained without cease and I didn't come out to Mille Mots at all.

I had a theme to write on Alexander the Great and not nearly enough time to get it done. Macedonia, Egypt, Persia, Babylon—did he have to conquer so many places? I sent a telegram to Maman and then shut myself in my
turne
with far too many books and maps. When I emerged from the library, blinking, there was an envelope waiting at Uncle Théophile's apartment, addressed in a round girlish slant.
Monsieur Crépet,
she wrote, that one spontaneous “Luc” put aside for the formality of a letter.

I'm sorry that you could not come to Mille Mots this weekend. Your
maman
said that you had much studying to do. Is it more philosophy? Anyway, it's raining here. You aren't missing much of anything. I've been trapped inside the château so that I'm not swept away into the Aisne (your
maman
swears it could happen).

So I thought, if you could not come to Mille Mots, I would send Mille Mots to you. Please accept this little drawing, monsieur. It was done with the utmost
expression.

Sincerely,

Miss Clare Ross

Tucked into the envelope, folded into thirds, was the sketch she'd been working on the day I found her out under the chestnut tree. Mille Mots, leaning out over the river, with those wild tangles of roses climbing the walls. I leaned to the paper, convinced I could smell them. It was a hesitant sketch, the lines faint and nervous, but it showed promise. She had a good sense of perspective—that much I could tell—and a sure hand. I wished Papa could see it. Though I'd gone weeks before without coming home, I suddenly wanted to be nowhere but.

I washed and changed into a fresh shirt. I was due at the Café du Champion by half past five, while the tourists were still lingering over their Beaujolais, but before the students and laborers arrived. Between serving, I earned extra tips sketching the patrons tucked in at their tables with carafes and good conversation. Several glasses in, most were willing to buy the commemoration of their holiday.

It was a busy evening, with plates from the kitchen, refilled glasses, and many crossed fingers that I was far enough from École Normale Supérieure to avoid seeing any of my classmates. At the end of the evening, over a dish of
ragoût,
I scribbled a response on a cognac-spattered sheet of drawing paper, my last.

Mademoiselle,

I've never gotten more than a note or two from Maman and the occasional cramped letter from my grand-mère in Aix. As yours doesn't include a treatise on your current health, a reminiscence on how things used to be better a generation ago, or a reminder to wear clean socks, it is already magnitudes more interesting. And to come with such an expressive sketch, I should really feel honored.

I truly do, you know. I remember how reluctant you were to show your sketchbook, how precious your drawings are to you. That you trust me, mademoiselle, it means much.

It's been raining here as well, but I've hardly noticed. I'm only outside when passing from my study
turne
at the university to my job at the café then back to my uncle's apartment to sleep. If I disregard the latter, sometimes there's a spare corner of time for tennis. There's a German student here, who I tutor in English, and he's as mad for tennis as I am. Sometimes we'll have a “lesson” across the net. He can now swear in three languages.

Well, I have a theme due for which I am woefully underprepared. If only I'd spent more time reading Callisthenes and less time accidentally discovering salacious paintings, I might be better prepared….

Forgive me, I've had too much serious reading this week and too little sleep. And yet, once more into the breach!

Thank you, truly, for the sketch.

Luc René Rieulle Crépet

I posted it on my way back to the university, along with a brief note to Papa.
The demoiselle, she has talent in drawing. Papa, can you teach her the way you taught me?
That stack of books on my desk somehow didn't seem so towering the rest of the weekend.

Her response didn't come straight away and then I was too into the weekday routine of classes, study, and work, with the occasional late tennis match, to notice. Then Wednesday I came home, dripping in my tennis flannels, to find a letter waiting.

“It arrived last night,” Uncle Théophile said. He pursed his lips. “If you'd come home at a decent hour, I would have told you.”

“I'm sorry, Uncle.” I reached past him for the envelope on the hall table. “It's been a busy week. I've been studying a lot and I've been working a lot. I must pay my tuition somehow.”

He looked pointedly at my racket. “I can see that.”

Without changing, I took the letter and racket straight back out the door. Rather than sit across the table from my sour-faced uncle, I'd eat supper at the café after my shift. Again. The other boys in my
turne,
they always teased that I had it easier living in the city rather than boarding at the university, the way they all did. As draconian as the rules were for boarders, they couldn't be any worse than Uncle Théophile's. Home by seven, lights out by eight, no sugar in my coffee, no wine on weekdays. And absolutely no gramophone music.

Gaspard, the owner, rolled his eyes at my tennis flannels, but passed me an apron. “Clear those three tables, and I'll have Hugues make a plate for you.”

I tucked Clare's letter into my apron pocket, unread, and went with damp towel to clear the tables for the next customer. Of course, it wasn't until three hours later that I finally had a corner table, a plate of lentils with tomatoes, a glass of cheap wine, and a moment to read her letter.

Dear Monsieur Crépet,

I don't believe that it is as dreary as you say. You're in Paris, after all. Universities, clean socks, unexpected letters. Living on your own rather than with someone telling you what you should or shouldn't do. What can be better than that?

I haven't been reading my Callisthenes either (should I be?). Your mother did give me a copy of
Les Contes de Ma Mère l'Oye
to keep me company. I can't read more than a handful of words
(l'ogre, les roses, la petite princesse)
but it's as marvelous as I remember. It makes me feel that I'm sitting in my nursery with Nanny Proud, my old nurse. She couldn't read any of the French either, but always pulled me onto her lap to trace the pictures and tell me the stories in her own words. I think she made up half of them.

You know, I remember when your mother brought me the book. It must have been right after it was published, now that I think back on it. Of course then I had no idea your papa was the illustrator. Only that the nice lady who spoke with the lovely accent had visited from France and brought me a beautiful present. You were there, too, on that visit, weren't you? You and your papa. You brought a rubber ball, but Nanny Proud told me that laddies were too wild to play with. I always wished that I had tried anyway. I'd never had a friend before.

And here I've rambled on. Hopefully this letter will give you a moment or two between your essays. If you're able, maybe you'll be back at Mille Mots this weekend? At least your mother hopes.

Sincerely,

Miss Clare Ross

The chair across from me squeaked. “What's this, Crépet?” Stefan Bauer leaned over the back of the chair, fingers laced. “A letter from a girlfriend?”

“No.” I folded the letter and stuffed it back in the envelope. “Just a girl. Who is also a friend.”

“A girl and a friend.” He reached across the table and helped himself to my wine. “Is that not how it is defined?”

“Your English is rusty, Bauer.”

He shrugged and drained the glass. “The whole language is rusty. Only German is strong as steel.”

I pulled my dish closer, hopefully out of his reach. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you were going home to restring your racket.”

“I am following you. I am…I am stacking you like a deer.” He waggled his eyebrows.

“Stalking.” I retrieved the glass from him and gazed mournfully at the dregs. “And one generally doesn't steal the food of one's prey.”

“You forgot your satchel at the club.” He swung my battered canvas bag up onto the table, knocking my spoon onto the ground. “You will want your copybooks and texts, yes?”

I swore in French and opened up the satchel. Nothing was missing. “Thank you.”

Bauer shrugged again. “Now that you and the satchel are reunited, a cabaret?”

I never liked the cabarets like Bauer did. Too many loud-faced women and jingling coins. “I have a lot of reading to do tonight.” I buckled the satchel closed.

“Because of your girlfriend, eh?” He nudged me. “Tell me about her, Crépet.” He swiped my heel of bread and tossed it back and forth between his hands like a tennis ball.

“You're imagining things. It's a letter from my
maman,
that's all.” I tucked the envelope into the satchel pocket. “When have you ever seen me talk to a girl? You're delusional.”

“I do not know this English word. But I know that you are a liar.” He pointed. “Your ears, they are pink right there.”

“It's the wine.” I brushed my hair over the offending ears. “Gaspard serves it strong.”

I couldn't say why I was evading Bauer. What did it matter if he knew that Maman had a ward staying with us for a little while? Clare was at Mille Mots, and besides, she wasn't his type.

“Does she have big…” He proved my point with an unmistakable mime.

“I'm not teaching you that word in English, you degenerate.” I retrieved my spoon from the floor and wiped it on my apron.

“But you knew what I was talking about, eh?” He nodded. “She does, does she not?”

“Of course not. She's only fifteen.” I stuffed a heaping spoonful of lentils into my mouth above Bauer's cries of “Aha!” I'd slipped.

“Why have I not met her? She does not come to the café with you or to the courts at Île de Puteaux. Young girls like to watch men at sport.”

I swallowed and wiped my mouth. “She's not in Paris. But I wouldn't introduce her to you anyway.”

“You are afraid she would see what a real man looks like?” He winked.

I was more afraid she'd see the questionable company I kept.

“Ah, then she is a country girl?” he persisted. “
Ein Süßling
from home?”

“She's not a sweetheart.” I bent my head to my plate and ate faster. “She's my
maman
's ward. I hardly know her.”

He leaned his elbows on the table. “This is why you go so often on the weekends to your château. And also why you do not bring me.”

I never invited him to Mille Mots, but it wasn't because of Clare Ross. The urbane Bauer with his tailored Berlin suits, with his straw hats and his Horsman rackets, with his casual change tossed down on baccarat tables or in the laps of showgirls, he didn't belong at Mille Mots. Maman, in her aesthetic dresses and reform corsets, Papa in his knickerbockers and painting smocks. The château's crumbling walls, leaking roof, moth-eaten curtains, halls lined with terrifying paintings and nude sculptures. The maids in their brightly colored uniforms that Maman had designed, “because happiness is more dignified than black.” Marthe in her crowded kitchen, birdcages hanging between the dented pots. Papa's lunchtime potage, Maman's English tea, both of them feeding the dogs under the dining table. Papa's habit of cheerfully coming down to breakfast in absolutely nothing but a dressing gown. Among all of that, Bauer wouldn't belong.

“You're right.” I pushed back my chair and picked up my plate. “If I never invite you, I never have to share.”

He nodded approvingly. “You are a sly weasel, Crépet.”

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