He came to our place one Sunday in November 189–.
I still say ‘our place’, even though the house no longer belongs to us. It will soon be fifteen years since we left the neighbourhood, and we shall certainly never go back.
We lived on the premises of Sainte-Agathe upper school. My father (like the other pupils, I called him ‘Monsieur Seurel’) was in charge of both the upper school, where they studied for the teaching certificate, and the middle school. My mother took the junior class.
A long red house, with five glazed doors shrouded in Virginia creeper, at the far end of the little town; a huge courtyard with shelters and washing places which opened at the front towards the village through a large gateway; on the north side, the road beyond a little barred gate leading to the railway station, three kilometres away; to the south and at the back, fields, gardens and meadows, with the outskirts of town beyond them . . . There you have a sketch plan of the dwelling in which the most poignant and anguished days of my life were spent, the dwelling where our adventures ebbed and flowed, breaking like waves on a solitary rock . . .
The transfer lottery – a decision by a school inspector or a departmental préfet – had brought us there. One day, towards the end of the holidays, long ago, a peasant’s cart, going on ahead of our goods and chattels, set my mother and me down in front of the little rusty gate. Some kids who had been stealing peaches from the garden fled silently through gaps in the hedge. My mother, whom we called ‘Millie’, and who was the most methodical housewife that I have ever known, went directly into the rooms full of dusty straw and immediately announced in despair – as she did at every move we made – that our furniture would never fit into such a badly designed house. She came out to confide her troubles in me and, as she spoke, gently wiped my little face, blackened by the journey. Then she went back to make an inventory of all the doorways and windows that would have to be replaced if the quarters were to be made habitable . . . And I, meanwhile, under a large straw hat with ribbons on it, stayed back on the gravel of this unfamiliar courtyard, waiting, ferreting around in a tentative way by the well and under the shed.
At least, this is how I imagine our arrival today; because whenever I try to recapture the distant memory of that first evening, waiting in our courtyard at Sainte-Agathe, what I remember are, in fact, other times of waiting, and I see myself with both hands resting on the bars of the gate, anxiously looking out for someone coming down the main street. And if I try to visualize the first night that I had to spend in my garret, between the first-floor storerooms, what I recall are actually other nights: I am no longer alone in the room; a great, restless, friendly shadow wanders back and forth along the wall. This whole, peaceful landscape – the school, Old Martin’s field with its three walnut trees and the garden, filled every day from four o’clock onwards by visiting women – is forever enlivened and transformed in my memory by the presence of the person who caused such an upheaval in our adolescent years and who, even after he had gone, did not leave us in peace.
Yet we had already been there for ten years when Meaulnes came.
I was fifteen. It was a cold Sunday in November, the first day of autumn, suggesting the winter to come. All day, Millie had been waiting for a carriage from the station that was to bring her a hat for the cold weather. In the morning, she missed Mass, and I, sitting in the choir with the other children, had looked anxiously towards the bell tower, right up to the sermon, expecting to see her come in with her new hat.
In the afternoon, I had to go to Vespers by myself.
‘In any case,’ she said, to cheer me up, brushing my child’s outfit with her hand, ‘even if the hat had arrived, I would certainly have had to devote Sunday to adjusting it.’
In winter, that was how we often spent our Sundays. In the morning, my father would set off for some distant pond shrouded in mist, to fish for pike from a boat, and my mother, retiring until nightfall to her dark bedroom, would darn her simple clothes. She shut herself up in that way because she was afraid that someone or other, one of her friends as poor as she was, and as proud, might catch her at it. So, after Vespers, I would wait in the cold dining room, reading, until she opened the door to show me how the clothes looked on her.
That particular Sunday, an event in front of the church kept me outside after the service. The children had gathered to watch a christening in the porch. On the town square, several men, dressed in their firemen’s jackets, had formed columns and were stamping their feet in the cold as they listened to Boujardon, the fire chief, getting entangled in the complexities of drill . . .
The baptismal bell stopped suddenly like a peal of festive bells that had mistaken the time and place. Boujardon and his men, their weapons slung across their backs, were jogging away with the fire-engine, and I saw them vanish round the corner followed by four silent boys whose thick soles crushed the twigs on the frosty road down which I did not dare follow them.
The only life left in the village was in the Café Daniel, where you could hear the customers’ muffled voices rise and fall. As for me, hugging the wall of the great courtyard that separated our house from the village, I came to the little iron gateway, a little anxious at arriving late.
It was half open and I saw at once that something unusual was afoot.
At the dining-room door – the nearest of the five glazed doors opening on to the courtyard – a woman with grey hair was leaning forward and trying to peer through the curtains. She was small, and wearing an old-fashioned black-velvet bonnet. She had a sharp, thin face, now looking worn with anxiety. I am not sure what premonition made me stop on the first step in front of the gate when I saw her.
‘Where has he gone? Oh, my God!’ she was muttering. ‘He was with me just now. He has already been all round the house. Perhaps he has run away.’
And between each sentence she tapped three times on the window, so lightly that you could hardly hear it.
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