Chapter 5 was running extremely long, so I have decided to split it at approximately the halfway mark; as for Chapters 1 and 2, likewise written 'through' and subsequently split, this provides a slightly rough join, but makes quite good sense thematically.
Meanwhile, this fiction just gets fluffier and fluffier...
Chapter 5. Friend and Father
It was really quite unseasonably hot. Christine fanned herself surreptitiously with the folded sheet of the ship’s daily Gazette (a Toureg uprising in Mauretania; arrival of Crown Prince Wilhelm in Bremen; an unclaimed pearl bracelet to be found at the purser’s office) and exchanged a smile with Mrs Cunningham, the little Englishwoman who was likewise leaning over the rail of the aft promenade beside her. Below them on the liner’s stern decks, a boisterous game of quoits was going on, with much laughter among the younger contestants as an occasional larger swell sent a throw flying off-target; the Persephone had become a little more lively over the last few days, heaving through the long mid-Atlantic rollers, and Christine had been admiring the dexterity with which the attendants brought round trays of afternoon tea, handling china and silverware with as much ease as if the deck planking had not been slanting steadily from side to side beneath them.
Down below, young Selina Cunningham was taking her throw amid much solicitous advice from not one but two jostling youths a couple of years older; she made the cast with a schoolgirl squeak of triumph and turned to wave up at her mother, who was watching her with a smile. Still very much a nursery-party, Christine deduced with amusement, as another squeal announced the arrival of her own offspring along the upper deck at high speed.
She held out her arms, laughing, to catch Gustave as he flung himself around the corner towards her, and swept him round and up against the rail in a swirl of skirts, hugging the compact small body tight against her. Gustave grinned back, cheeks flushed and pink beneath the flying fair hair, and used the fall of one sleeve to wipe his forehead before she could prevent him. “Sorry, Mother, I can’t stop — it’s a chase—”
And he was off again like lightning, vanishing back up the far side of the ship with the inexhaustible energy of the very young.
Raoul, appearing light-footed in pursuit an instant later, was every bit as flushed in the face as her son, his hair damp and clinging; but he returned her an equally cheerful grin, mopping perspiration from his eyes with a pocket-handkerchief. “No tea, thanks—” as she held out an unused cup — “I’ve got a child eagerly waiting to be caught up with—”
“Do try to make sure he doesn’t fall in,” Christine said without thinking — in some part of every mother’s heart, it seemed, her son was still a helpless infant — and received a look of oblivious masculine unconcern in return.
“As if any of us would dare, after one scolding from old Mathilde. Why, the time I fell in the lake...”
But the nostalgic tone trailed off, and after a moment he sighed, unexpectedly. “I wish she could be here now — Mathilde.”
It was not the sun and the sea that she thought he had in mind.
“So do I.” She slipped her hand briefly into his. “So do I. We owe her so much.”
A son, a husband... It was Mathilde’s calm sense and refusal to pass judgement that had held Raoul together in those last few months, when her own attempts to reach him had only lacerated them both; and it was the shared de Chagny nursery experience — twenty years apart — that had formed the first tentative bridge between her husband and the stranger’s child whom as his own son he’d always resented.
But Raoul had set himself, a little awkwardly, to make overtures: Gustave, blossoming in the unaccustomed attention like sun after rain, had launched into enthusiastic anecdote. Twenty minutes later she had come back to find her son with one hand tucked confidingly into Raoul’s own, listening enthralled to a hesitant account of evading Mathilde’s vigilance in order to slip into the stables at night. And twenty minutes after that, Gustave had evidently succeeded in insinuating himself into the crook of Raoul’s arm, a position which — judging by the blissful satisfaction of his expression — he had long been envious to attain: the two fair heads were bent close together over the workings of his grandfather’s prized repeater, which had been one of the young Vicomte’s most hallowed boyhood possessions. Christine still remembered the awed air with which the small Raoul had first displayed to her the intricate mechanisms of the watch, that summer at Perros; she had barely dared do more than stroke the burnished case with one finger. She could only imagine the joy with which her mechanically-minded son must have discovered the potential of such an object.
She had set an arm around the shoulders of both, her heart too full for words, and laid her cheek against Raoul’s as Gustave wriggled free.
“Look, Mother, look! You touch this spring, and...”
She had laughed and kissed him.
Yes, Mathilde would have loved to see her two former nurselings ensconced together in the corner of the saloon this morning over an article on ballooning that Raoul had found... and Raoul’s old nurse had guessed, perhaps, at what Christine had not: that it was not only Gustave who had stood in want of boyish activity.
Raoul was flushed, out of breath, and slightly sunburnt. But the dark shadows under his eyes were gone, and he was sweating freely with a grin, a clean male scent that was heightened a little in her senses, not the old liquor-fouled reek... He was showing every sign of dashing off again in pursuit. Christine caught at his sleeve. “Was this chase-game your idea or his, darling?”
“Mine — for my sins.” The rueful tone was at his own expense. “But this ship’s incredible — you wouldn’t believe the places on board that we’ve been through—”
“I would.” She reached up to silence him with a kiss. “Which is why I’d much rather you were with him...”
“If he’s gone where I think he has, there’s a short-cut through second class.” Raoul returned an affectionate but somewhat perfunctory embrace, his mind clearly already racing elsewhere, and she laughed.
“Well, once you’ve caught up with him you might suggest he comes down here and tries a game of quoits; I think the two of you have had quite enough running around for one day and I happen to know little Selina Cunningham is dying to try out her French.” She smiled over at Mrs Cunningham, who responded with uncomprehending English politeness, and a slightly flustered look as the Vicomtesse’s husband inclined a graceful if dishevelled bow in her direction.
And then with a parting wave of the hand he was gone. Christine leaned over the rail again with half-closed eyes, letting the sway of the ship take her weight. Somewhere at the edge of her attention she could hear the laughter of the quoits-players below, and the running surge of the sea; but she was turning a certainty over and over in her mind, cherishing the warmth of the decision.
The saloon steward would be able to help her...
Christine gave a smile and a word of thanks to the gangly youth who brought her the form, dipping her pen absently as she studied the heavy black print. The Wireless Telegraphy office was high in the ship and somewhat cramped, and the nib she was using was not a good one; but they’d found her a little table down the corridor and the clerk had been helpfulness personified. She dipped the pen again and wrote the New York address, taking care with the sputtering ink. The clerk coughed.
“And the address for the reply, Madame: DECHAGNY PERSEPHONE—”
“There won’t be a reply,” Christine said quietly, copying obedient codes at his dictation. She tapped the end of the pen against her chin briefly, marshalling words: wrote again without pause. REGRET UNABLE TO FULFIL CONTRACT...
Two lines of text. She read it over again, retaining the telegram a moment longer in her hand as he tried to take it from her.
Goodbye, America. Goodbye to our last chance... to go back as before? No. And Raoul’s presentiment was still cold at the back of her neck.
She let the paper slip from her fingers, and paid over the fee. “And that will go tonight? Here, now?” From a ship in the middle of the ocean... it was still hard to believe.
“As soon as there is time, Madame.” Her form was added to a stack of others; one more anonymous sheet of paper.
So the die was cast. It was done. She had a ridiculous urge to stay for as long as it took, to hear the codes tapped out and to make certain. But it was absurd. Even if it were permitted, it would prove nothing; and there were men here with work to do.
Besides, after all the rushing about of the day, she needed to make sure Gustave had his bath... a task which she strongly suspected was beyond Célestine.
Even so, she was not prepared for the volume of protest which hit her as she opened the door into their stateroom. She’d expected furious objections from Gustave, who disliked the entire process; she had been prepared to hear fishwife scolding from Célestine, who had neither toleration nor understanding of boys who would not do as they were told. But the sheer level of fury to which their voices were jointly contributing as she entered the inner cabin — Gustave’s portion quashed into violently splashing bubbles as Célestine propelled his head downwards between his knees while ladling water down his back — was beyond anything Christine considered reasonable.
“Gustave! Célestine — what on earth is the meaning of this?”
A moment’s lull: then a fresh outburst as both parties broke into violent grievance. Célestine was the louder. Her usual prim appearance was marred by great soaked splashes, her collar pulled askew, long strands of hair clawed free from their confinement, and she brandished a red mark on her wrist with outraged disbelief.
“Little viper!” She was almost incoherent in her fury. “Like a child from the gutter — to insult me, to scratch like some hellspawn demon—”
Christine had gone very pale. “Madame, that is quite enough! If you cannot handle a ten-year-old child—”
“Some child.” Célestine set her hands on her hips in an all-too-familiar gesture. “If the son of a Vicomte—”
“Enough.” The Vicomtesse’s voice was icy in its restraint. “Monsieur Gustave will answer to me — and you will leave now, please. At once.”
Rigid and shaking, she watched the woman march out, back still stiff with offence.
That temper of Gustave’s — those flashes of black consuming temper, that counted no cost and acknowledged no limit, the son of his father... Christine took hold of herself. It was childish naughtiness, that was all. Really, that woman had the knack of hitting upon precisely the wrong thing to say.
She sighed as an exclamation from outside and a fresh torrent of complaint indicated an interruption in Célestine’s exit. Raoul’s voice could be heard in annoyance, and the next moment he had thrust through into the cabin behind her.
“Is that female completely out of her mind? Anyone would think... And the noise — what the—?” That last was bitten off short in deference to Gustave’s tender years; but in his shirtsleeves, with a damp towel slung round his neck in lieu of a collar and another still drying face and hands, he was clearly straight out of his own bath in answer to the uproar, and far from pleased.
“Well, Gustave?” She was very rarely angry with him, but she was now.
“I’m much too old to be washed by her.” Dripping and bedraggled, the child had flinched at her tone, but he was still huddled against perceived injustice. The high back of the bathtub was between them, and she could see nothing of him but one defensively curled shoulder and the peaked wet face. “She isn’t even a proper nursemaid. She only comes with us because we’ve got no money, she said so. And I don’t want her looking at me in the bath, I hate her. She’s got hard hands, and she pinches. And she stares.”
Checking to see if the son of a Vicomte was made the same as other boys, no doubt. Christine sighed. It was hard on him to be subject to a Célestine, at ten years old.
“Very well... but I need you to get on and bath yourself, please, darling, without a fuss. If you’re old enough to be trusted to wash properly, then you’re old enough to do it without being told. All over, Gustave.” She found the soap where Célestine had dropped it, and passed it to her son along with the flannel. “And I need you to apologise to Célestine.”
Tentative washing noises had begun, but stopped abruptly. “But Mother—”
“You should be ashamed, a boy of your age, to scream and scratch like a baby in a fit of temper. And Célestine was only doing as I had told her. She had no choice, Gustave, and you make her life more difficult.”
“She makes my life difficult.” But it was said under his breath. One foot waved over the edge of the tub with energetic soaping, shortly followed by the other, and water splashed. “I’m sorry, Mother. I didn’t mean to hurt her. But she grabbed me so hard — and she wouldn’t listen—”
“I have yet to know Madame Célestine to listen to anyone,” Raoul observed rather drily from behind her. He put down the towel with which he had been attempting to finish drying himself, and crossed the cabin to lay a hand on Gustave’s wet shoulder, drawing a rather apprehensive upward glance. He met the boy’s gaze, and held it. “Now, personally, I have no time for Célestine Bribot. But a true de Chagny doesn’t take out his temper on servants or underlings. He owes that to himself — and to his family.”
“Even if he has no money?”
“Most especially when he has no money... or how else could anyone know the quality of his birth?”
Gustave digested that for a moment, resting his chin on his knees in front of him. He looked up again. “But people do, sometimes, don’t they? Get angry?”
“Yes,” Raoul said quietly. He dropped to one knee, bringing their eyes level. “And they’re truly sorry for it afterwards... That’s a smudge of oil on your cheek, I think. Shall I try to get it off?”
Gustave passed over the flannel without protest and submitted to a vigorous scrubbing process. “Father...” It was hesitant. “Shall I... be a true de Chagny?”
A moment’s silence. Christine’s heart ached for them both.
“You are.” Raoul de Chagny reached for the towel and slipped it about the boy’s dripping body as he rose, drawing him close. His eyes met hers above the head of their son, and she found her vision unaccountably blurred. “You are.”
Christine turned aside; made herself very busy all of a sudden, searching amid Gustave’s tumbled possessions, until she could trust her voice.
“Here’s your nightshirt, darling.” She held it out for the boy to dive into, his arms flailing, and dropped a kiss on his forehead when he was done. “Now get into bed, and I’ll sing for you.”
She leaned over him to pull up the blankets as he wriggled down, then seated herself in her usual place on the end of the bed. Raoul had come quietly to stand behind her, and she felt him slip an arm about her shoulders. Christine sank back against him, settling into the remembered security of that hold.