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Authors: Zillah Bethel

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Le Temps des Cerises

BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
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Contents
  1. Title Page
  2. Dedication
  3. Quotes
  4. Part One: Waiting to Live, Waiting to Die
  5. Chapter one
  6. Chapter two
  7. Chapter three
  8. Chapter four
  9. Chapter five
  10. Chapter six
  11. Chapter seven
  12. Chapter eight
  13. Chapter nine
  14. Chapter ten
  15. Chapter eleven
  16. Chapter twelve
  17. Part Two: Living, Dying
  18. Chapter thirteen
  19. Chapter fourteen
  20. Chapter fifteen
  21. Chapter sixteen
  22. Chapter seventeen
  23. Chapter eighteen
  24. Chapter nineteen
  25. Part Three: Death, Life
  26. Chapter twenty
  27. Chapter twenty-one
  28. Chapter twenty-two
  29. Chapter twenty-three
  30. Chapter twenty-four
  31. Chapter twenty-five
  32. Chapter twenty-six
  33. Chapter twenty-seven
  34. Chapter twenty-eight
  35. Chapter twenty-nine
  36. Chapter thirty
  37. Chapter thirty-one
  38. Chapter thirty-two
  39. Chapter thirty-three
  40. Chapter thirty-four
  41. Chapter thirty-five
  42. Chapter thirty-six
  43. Chapter thirty-seven
  44. Epilogue
  45. Annotations
  46. Copyright

le temps des cerises

Zillah Bethell

for Benji

‘The early heat from whi
ch we are suffering may be attributed to the presence of a comet not yet perfectly visible. It is common knowledge that in all epochs the appearance of a comet has preceded a great event. I am waiting for one particular great event in the world...'

Henri Rochefort (1868)

‘Paris amuses itself on foot, on horseback, in a carriage; Paris amuses itself by day, by night; in the morning, in the evening; Paris amuses itself doing good, doing wrong; cheating and being cheated; laughing, weeping; hanging about, working hard; bankrupting, burning, killing itself.'

Pierre Véron (1862)

Part One: Waiting to Live, Waiting to Die

Chapter one

It was here, here she always felt most at ease, protected once by the city walls, twice by the grey stone slate of the convent and thrice, of course, by the hands of the Lord. Even now, in bleak midwinter, the garden shone in her mind's eye, overflowing in rhythm and colour, the plants breathing in and out their souls… only here could she praise the Lord. She whispered an
Ave Maris Stella
for the soldiers fighting at the ramparts, the French and Prussian high commands, the starving inhabitants of the city, the Sisters of St Joseph's and last but not least her dear friend Aggie who sat beside her on the bench of sweet woodruff, moaning softly and sweating profusely.

‘Roast chicken,' she groaned now, holding her sides. ‘It gives me stomach ache just thinking about it.'

‘Ssh dear,' Bernadine chided her gently. ‘We must keep our minds off it. How many have you done now?'

‘One hundred and one,' Aggie declared proudly, indicating the horsehair basket on her lap all swollen up with red crêpe bandages.

‘Well done!' Bernadine took a gold from her sliding box of coloured cotton and, holding a needle up to the sun, threaded it expertly. ‘Only another fifty to go!'

Aggie sighed. ‘If only I could live on grass and twigs I'd munch my way through every window box on the Rue de Rivoli as well as the Bois de Boulogne. Or a glow-worm living off dewdrops. Or a big fat spider catching flies! If you were a blancmange I'd eat you up!' She giggled at Bernadine's wry expression then wrinkled up her nose. ‘The smell of gunpowder makes me feel even sicker. I wish I could sleep underground with the squirrels and wake up to springtime and peace… I'll never refuse one of Brother Michael's vermicelli soups ever again!' she added vehemently.

Bernadine smiled a little at that for she'd never known Sister Agnes refuse anything; and it was a source of wonder to the whole convent how she remained so plump on such meagre rations. Her own dress had been taken in twice already and it still hung about her like an altar cloth whereas Aggie looked fit to burst her buttons.

‘He says the Emperor
1
 
spent a hundred thousand francs a year,' she went on with a gloomy air, ‘on sugar plums! Imagine that!'

‘I shouldn't believe everything Brother Michael tells you.'

‘Oh yes indeed, it was in the papers. One hundred thousand francs a year on sugar plums. Pocket money for him. And the feasts they had at the Tuileries you wouldn't believe. Peaches in syrup was a great favourite. Brother Michael said the footmen scampered about like mice in white slippers, bringing him morsels of cheese. And walnut.'

‘Goodness!' was all Bernadine could think to say, staring at Aggie whose face at that moment looked like a great sweating cheese itself.

‘What would
you
have, Sister Bernadine? You can have anything you like. Anything at all.'

‘Oh, Agnes.'

‘Go on,' implored Aggie. ‘Anything at all. A great banquet in your honour…'

‘Oh alright.' Bernadine put down the bit of gold braid she was stitching and appeared to give the matter great thought. ‘I'd have a savoury to start with of course… oyster soup I think.'

‘Good choice. With new bread and butter?'

‘Yes, with new bread and butter. Then I think I should like shrimps and watercresses… or maybe mussels with parsley sauce. I don't know; I'm torn between the two.'

‘Both. Have both of them.'

‘Alright,' Bernadine smiled. ‘Both. The main course would have to be a delicious beef stew full of onions and carrots and potatoes and dumplings.'

‘Dumplings!' echoed Aggie looking as if she were in heaven. ‘I dream of dumplings.'

‘For pudding I don't know – let me think…'

‘Floating islands?' her friend suggested.

‘Oh, yes.' Bernadine felt herself giving in at last. ‘And gingerbread. How I love gingerbread.'

‘Cherry nougat?'

‘Chocolate mousse!'

‘Rum baba!'

‘Caramel cigars!'

‘Peppermint creams!'

‘Toffee terrine!'

‘Raspberry sorbet!'

‘Lemon meringue pie!'

They egged each other on, on and on and on until no more puddings could be dreamed up, not in a month of Sundays; and Sister Bernadine, wiping away a tear of laughter, said she hadn't eaten so well in ages and a few Hail Marys were in order after that little lot.

They worked on in silence then for a while on the little sweet-woodruff bench, Bernadine stitching gold braid onto cuffs and collars and wondering as she often did how such beautiful clothes could be made for such a terrible occupation. The brass buttons glinted in the sunlight, reflecting Aggie's plump white fingers rolling her little crêpe bandages. Now and then the sound of guns boomed in the distance like far-off thunder or St Peter snoring up above, but the air in the garden was soft and full of peace. A robin pecked at the sunken vegetable patch, peering from one bright eye and then the other as if he didn't know which to believe and Bernadine wondered idly if next year she wouldn't get honeysuckle and lemon verbena for the bees.

‘Narbonne honey,' Aggie remarked upon hearing the suggestion, ‘is the best in France. You can taste the wild flowers in it.'

Maybe some pale pink roses or buttercup yellow… to remind us of the original source of all light… and to make a splash between the old and forlorn-looking flower clock and convent wall. (It had been her idea – the flower clock – oh so many years ago… ‘A marriage of nature and progress,' she had announced proudly to the visiting dignitaries… ‘tribute to the great clockmaker himself and to symbolise the difference between earthly time run by hours, days, minutes of prayer and the timelessness, infinitude of heaven.' Quite the theologian, he had said and she had blushed… oh she had blushed…) Deep crimson perhaps to remind us of… the blood of our Saviour…

‘Sister Bernadine?'

‘Oh, yes Agnes?' She took up her needle quite purposefully.

‘I… I…'

Bernadine knew Aggie well enough to know that she wanted to confess and she concentrated hard on an epaulette in an effort to encourage her.

‘I… oh… do you remember last year when we went to the Madeleine flower market and came back with bunches of azaleas and wallflowers – Brother Michael said it would have been quicker to grow them.'

‘Oh yes. What fun we had that day!'

‘I wish we could have flowers all year round. It's so desolate here somehow.'

Bernadine laughed. ‘You would not care for them half so much if that were the case. It is in the nature of a flower to be a surprise, an event. It would be like having Christmas every day of the week. How sick we would become of it.'

Aggie looked as if she didn't think Christmas every day of the week would be too much of a penance after all; but she lapsed into silence and closed her eyes.

Bernadine wondered if she shouldn't press her further on the matter, but she had always held firm to the belief that a confession was best delivered of its own accord prompted by the voice of God or the inner workings of the conscience; and besides it was too beautiful a day and the girl in no fit state, and so she let the matter drop along with her needle and fell back to basking in the warm winter sun and gazing upon her beloved little garden.

Desolate, yes, and sweet! A place to forget, to confess, to dream, to repent. How many hours had she spent inside these walls protected once by the city ramparts, twice by the grey stone slate of the convent and thrice, of course, by the hands of the Lord. Only here could she praise Him! Amidst the stained-glass panes of crocus and marigold, incense of lavender, spearmint and thyme and the hymns of ancient insects and orange-bellied singing toads which each struck a different note at sunset. As if God stood on the threshold of spring, took up his baton and said to the world, ‘Let Earth's song begin. Let Earth's song begin…'

‘Sister Bernadine?'

‘I… oh… yes Agnes?' Bernadine took up her needle again with lightning speed.

‘I have a secret,' Aggie panted painfully, her round face pallid and damp with sweat.

‘The Lord knows all our secrets, Agnes,' Bernadine murmured automatically.

‘It's not the Lord I'm worried about,' responded Aggie with a fearful glance at the low arched window of the convent where the Reverend Mother sat beneath her shelves of confiscated property, drawing up lists and timetables for the novices.

Bernadine decided to put the poor girl out of her misery. ‘I know about the sweets you stole from...' she almost choked over his name, ‘... Monsieur Lafayette's. I do not believe it to be a thing of great weight. We are all so very hungry.'

‘Oh, it's not that, it's much worse than that!' Aggie went on in a low panting murmur, her whole body trembling with emotion. ‘I should have told you long ago but I felt so ashamed... and... it's obvious to me now that you would have understood… only person who could possibly help in my predicament. And yet…'

BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
7.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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