Letter 25 - Christmas in Paris

Miss Maitland Bristow
14 Bathurst Mews

25 December 1902

Dearest Maisie,

I know I may be taking a risk even penning some of this down on paper, but I am overcome with questions, and am in desperate need of your advice. I must calm myself, and start from the beginning.

Early this morning--out of pure habit, I was up at dawn with all the fervor of a young girl awaiting the gifts of Father Christmas. Naturally, I was the only one up at such an ungodly hour. I tip-toed down the hallway into the parlour to take in the scent of the pine tree. I sank into the arm chair and closed my eyes: I could see Mother taking the whistling teapot off the stove, and Father smoking his favourite pipe whilst sitting in his leather club chair, no doubt reading that morning's Gazette. I wondered what Christmas was like for them without me this year. I opened my eyes to the sound of André bobbing about in the kitchen, clanking the pots and pans, bustling about in preparation for our Christmas feast.

Mr. Westley was very generous—there were several beautifully wrapped packages for me containing clothes and books. Madame Fifi had tied a great velvet bow around a new pair of embroidered gloves, and Mr. Rousseau had left me a tiny box containing a lovely bracelet of venetian beads. I spent the morning hours quite happily trying on my new things and perusing my new books. Before I knew it, the morning was gone, and Madame Fifi was reminding me to dress for dinner. She said, "Oh, and make it something nice, ma cherie." This was my first hint that Mr. Westley was expecting company for our Christmas meal. I had been a bit apprehensive about filling an entire evening's worth of conversation with my stoic Uncle, but in nowise was I prepared to be greeted by Julien Fortescue and his father when I entered the dining room. I nearly turned on my heels at the very sight of Julien handing his coat to Madame Fifi. Quickly, and to Madame Fifi's bewilderment, I took the coats from her with a, "Let me get these," and off I went before she could protest. I scurried to the guest room and shut myself inside, dropping down onto the bed amongst the wool coats--Julien's smelled of musky cologne. How would I ever tolerate an entire meal with the Fortescues? I sat up and tried to relax. Surely I would not be missed for a few more minutes whilst I stalled. I took the coats to the closet to hang them up, when I noticed a woman's hat box perched on the shelf above the rack. It seemed an odd sort of thing for my uncle to keep. Curious, and keen to delay my return to the dining room a bit longer, I pulled the box down to inspect it. Upon lifting the lid I found it full of dusty envelopes. I picked one off the top of the stack and opened it. It was an old, faded Christmas card--dated 11 December 1885. Maisie, it was from my mother--to Mr. Westley. It read:

Dear Charles,

I know it has been some time, almost a year. I daresay most would remain silent after what you have done. In the spirit of the holiday, I foster hope you will seek penance. I pray you will open a correspondence with me, Charles, but I will have you know: I shall never forgive you for the atrocity you have committed against your own blood.

Elyse Westley

It took a few moments for the impact of the words to sink in--what on earth could it mean? Certainly, it points in a most ominous direction. What atrocity could have been committed by Mr. Westley, against his “own blood”? I told myself there must be a reasonable explanation ... but how could I be sure? The little girl in the portrait, whom I had for some time thought likely to be his daughter--could he actually have harmed her? My high holiday spirits had already suffered a staggering blow upon the arrival of Julien Fortescue, and now the last bit of Christmas cheer in my heart was quite thoroughly snuffed out. So many questions were spinning in my mind, I barely noticed Madame Fifi calling up the stairs after me. I hurriedly hid the card away and replaced the box on its shelf, slipped out of the guest room, and ran straight into a rather scandalized Madame Fifi on the landing. She escorted me back to the dining room rather unceremoniously. I am quite convinced I looked a bit off when I made my entrance. I stole a furtive glance at Mr. Westley and fear began to take hold of me. Never until that moment had I questioned the serendipity that had brought me to Mr. Westley’s house. What had I done in leaving London and coming here? I was so preoccupied with attempting to make sense of the note that I hardly noticed Julien pulling my chair out for me. "Joyeux Noel, Adeline--so very good to see you again,” Julien taunted, with his French, and his lips. I stammered, "Merry Christmas," and at once tucked into the roasted turkey and parsnips. I had not met Julien's father, Admiral Jean Baptiste Fortescue, on the night we spent in Marseilles. He seemed a good bit older than Mr. Westley--in his seventies I would presume. The Admiral introduced himself, "It is so very fine to spend this lovely Christmas afternoon with you, Adeline, and my old friend, Charles." I smiled graciously, "As it is my great pleasure to be in your company." Julien cleared his throat rather garishly. I glanced briefly in Julien's direction to find him grinning in amusement, obviously having detected my gross deception. It did not take long for Admiral Fortescue to talk on what one can only assume is his favourite subject—war. "The Germans could do little to oppose us, our fleet was superior from the start ... " Every now and again Mr. Westley would interject something, "Ah, yes, but the French were ultimately pushed back to the Channel, were they not?" "Were it not for a shortage of coal, Prussia would not have gained the advantage!" Admiral Fortescue was clearly a patriot--albeit a rather drab conversationalist. I could not help but be distracted by Mr. Westley. What secret was he hiding? The Admiral carried on with his story, "Those damn Boches had artillery that could hit our ships from 4,000 yards." I managed to keep my mouth sufficiently occupied with our meal, as not to create an opportune moment for either of the Fortescues to involve me in the discussion. Alas, as soon as I cleared my plate and realised I had devoured all of the food in my immediate reach, Julien asked, "Where is Mr. Steichen this evening?" I felt ill straightaway. I paused to think of the most civil way to excuse Eduard's absence, "I believe he fancies the American wild turkey to our domestic French variety." Julien mused, "I suspect Eduard fancies a mélange of turkey." Maisie, I was so disconcerted at his nerve that I could think of no witty response. The simple truth of his words pained me deeply. I looked around for the butler, "Claude, where is the pudding?" "Mr. Westley requested a bûche de Noël be served for this evening’s guests." I tried to be casual as I whispered to Claude, "Well, let's have it, then." "Certainly, Mademoiselle." Julien was sitting terribly close to me. I tell you, Maisie, he was doing this on purpose--secretly reveling in my discomfort. But I knew Julien's sort--a libertine like Eduard, no doubt. I set out to expose Julien for what he really was--the wealthy, unaccomplished son of a bygone seaman. "Pray tell, Julien, why is it you are not at sea?" Julien leaned in, "We are not at war." I would not leave well enough alone, though, Maise, so I pressed, "So what is it that you spend your days doing, exactly, Julien? Ah, I think I know--attending dinner parties to the subsequent bereavement of all the young female guests." Julien smiled, this seemed to entertain him, "Home is a most welcome change from the front lines of the war in Peking." "Peking?" "I trained in Lorient, as an officer, before I deployed with the Fusiliers Marins as part of a special unit of La Royale, to fight on land in the Boxer Rebellion." I was bewildered at the folly of my misguided judgement--I had been so sure that Julien was merely a pretentious and trifling aristocrat, so to find out that he is a pretentious and trifling war hero … I was at a loss. After dessert, I rose from my seat and began to excuse myself, when Mr. Westley, looking on disapprovingly said, "Sit, Adeline." Needless to say, I sat. He adjusted his tone and more light-heartedly instructed Claude to pass around the basket with the Christmas crackers in it to end the meal. I reached into the basket and it was my luck that Julien’s hand, having dipped into the basket at the same time as mine, emerged holding the end of the very cracker I had plucked from amongst the others. "Shall we?" he challenged. I pulled my end of the cracker, and flinched at the loud pop. Julien removed the little note folded inside the cracker. It read: The sweet crimson rose with its beautiful hue is not half so deep as my passion for you. "Lovely," I said, tossing it carelessly on the table. My gaze fell on Mr. Westley, whereupon I felt an immediate return of suspicion and wonderment, and then back on Julien, the suspicion turning to loathing. The Fortescues were wrapping up their conversation, and as they stood to don the coats Madame Fifi had fetched, I slipped out without saying goodbye. I'm sure this will not go without consequence, but I did not care, Maisie. I headed toward my bedroom, but found myself distracted by the smells coming from the kitchen--and it gave me an idea. André and Claude were drinking champagne from the fluted stemware when I entered the kitchen. They greeted me warmly, "Ah! Joyeux Noel, Mademoiselle! Do you see, Claude--it rhymes!" The two began to laugh raucously. I could not help but smile at the scene before me. "It is so good to know you are both enjoying the holiday." André corrected me whilst sloshing his wine about, "The true holiday does not begin until 6 o'clock!" "6 o'clock?" I asked. "Yes, dear, that is when we are off duty to spend the remainder of the evening with our families to attend mass--except for Claude--for he is, and always will be, hopelessly alone!" The two men doubled over with laughter. As it was clear they were sufficiently fuddled, I took the opportunity to see what they knew of the portrait in Mr. Westley's study, "Tell me gentlemen, what do you make of that painting of the child Mr. Westley keeps in that dreary study of his?" Claude was first to respond, "There is quite a bit of mystery surrounding it--we all have our theories." André chimed in, "None of us have been here long enough to know for certain--with the exception of Madame Fifette." "So, Claude, who exactly do you believe the child to be?" "Well, it is clear to me that Mr. Westley is a lover of art, and picked up the piece at the world fair." "Oh, Claude!" André reprimanded, "How can you be so naive? Surely when a man fills his home with nothing but landscapes, a portrait of a young girl is out of place ... The Westley men are known for their hot tempers ... " Claude retorted, "What are you getting at, André?" André hesitated, "It is not for a young woman's ears." I rolled my eyes, "Spare me, André, I beg you." André looked left and then right as if to make sure no one else was within earshot, "Years ago, when I first became employed by Mr. Westley, I was gathering my things to leave for the night, when I overheard Madame Fifette speaking to Mr. Westley in his study. I will never forget, Madame Fifette said, 'You mustn't be so hard on yourself, Charles. You have made terrible mistakes, this is true, but the girl is gone now." André lowered his voice, "Those words can only mean one thing!" Claude looked over in disbelief, "What are you implying, you fool?" André whispered, "Murderer." Claude was in a fit, "Do not listen to that blubbering, drunken imbecile! You make up stories, because you have no interesting ones of your own! Now, go cook something, why don't you!" Again, the men burst out in hysterical laughter. I said good day, but I doubt they even noticed I had gone.

It was growing late. I glanced at the clock in the library--6 o'clock. The grandfather clock in the parlour began to toll. I could hear André and the rest filing out the back door, and panic began to set in--I was alone in the house with Mr. Westley. I hurried to my bedroom--almost running, and locked myself inside. I tried to pass the time reading, but nothing could divert my attention from the note in my pocket. I read it over and over again--trying to find a legitimate explanation for it. Surely this is the reason for the enmity between my father and uncle, at the very least. It was dark out now, and as unsettled as my mind was, I longed for sleep. I slid beneath the bedclothes, and watched the snow fall from my bedroom window. The house was eerily silent without the soft but familiar noises of Madame Fifi and the others attending to their evening duties. I wished I had never come to Paris, Maisie. I still wish it--I wish to be in London with you, and your mad brother--what I would not give for a moment more with that reserved, prideful Peter. The portrait in the study was indeed beginning to haunt me as my mother promised it would. The little girl's face stained my memory, inundating my thoughts without reprieve. André's words echoed in my head: "Murderer." I could think on nothing else. Perchance it was a night not unlike tonight; a cold and quiet, black night. I could not keep myself from hearing her whimper. I tried to push the horrid images away, but still they came: He drags her through the snow, towering over her, gripping her two tiny wrists in one hand, moving in the direction of the woods just behind the garden. Her small cries begin to wane, then perish altogether just beyond the snow-laden pines. Mr. Westley falters back through the garden path, alone.

These thoughts had so distressed me that my heart was pounding and my breathing laboured as if I had witnessed the scene that very moment. And then there was a new sound in the house. The floor-boards were creaking under Mr. Westley's slow, limping pace. He was in the hallway. I lay down, absolutely frozen with fear. I closed my eyes, hoping that I would appear to be sleeping. Mr. Westley was nearly to my door. I was so afflicted with anxiety that I began to tremble. The footsteps stopped in front of my bedroom door, but after a moment, they turned back. I haven't the constitution for such things, Maisie. The remainder of the night was spent fighting off sleep, until at last, I heard the familiar clanking from the kitchen after the sun rose.

Maisie, with all that has transpired, surely you can see that I am in dire need of your encouragement and good sensibility. If nothing else, please write soon, so that I may distract myself from this unhappy place.


Adeline Westley

23 rue Saint Paul


Cheryl said...

I know who the little girl is...at least I have an assumption. But I'll never tell until I know for sure! :)

(Fabulous letter!)

Amy Joy said...

COME ON! I need the whole book. This just isn't fair. Great writing :)

Cathy said...

I just read all the letters and am in complete suspense

sunrabbit said...

Hey, Cathy! Nice to see you here. Did Leslie mention the blog to you, or did you see my links on facebook? As for the suspense, we'll tweet and post on FB when there is a new letter ... :)

Anna Buttimore said...

Could you change the settings? On my screen it is black on a brown background and I have to highlight it to read it. Thanks!

sunrabbit said...

Anna, so sorry about that. You must not be able to see the image background for some reason (which is a cream color). I changed the background color to match the image background, so hopefully you'll not have further troubles. Thanks for reading!