Letter 33 - Absinthe

Miss Maitland Bristow
14 Bathurst Mews

22 March 1903

Dearest Maisie,

I am a bit downtrodden these past days. I will relay all of it to you, but first I must tell you, I am in complete agreement with your decision to go to the authorities to identify Collins. I can only imagine his mother's bereavement. I am saddened that you felt you could not tell Stuart your intentions; Maisie, what does this speak of your relationship, that you are keeping things from one another? Really, though, it is none of my concern--I am very much looking forward to October and all the wedding festivities. I cannot help but worry about Stuart's intentions, though.

As you might have imagined, I wasted no time making my way back to Montparnasse since my last letter. I took a carriage as far as Rue de Rennes and asked the driver to let me out on the corner. I walked the rest of the way to Café du Dôme, so that the driver would not know where I had gone, should Mr. Westley question him. The streets were alive with people, and the Café was crowded with the young and ambitious. The chatter and laughter in the air painted a scene much different from that of the quiet evening I had come with Vaughn. I peered around at the other patrons in the foyer in hopes of finding Van Hecke. And there he sat, in the back corner; this time with two other men. My heart was racing so that I nearly escaped back the way I had come. I had to assemble all my courage not to leave straightaway, but Van Hecke had already spotted me, so I pressed forward with my plan. I approached the back of the room, making my way around the bustling waiters. Van Hecke stopped pouring his cup of absinthe to lean over and mutter something to his associates--no doubt concerning my impending arrival. The three of them stopped what they had been doing to give me their full attention. Maisie, I had felt such dire need to return to the Café that I hadn't prepared my words, and felt suddenly quite exposed and foolish for coming. I smiled nervously and began, "Good evening gentlemen. Van Hecke, is it?" He smiled brightly and said, "Indeed." He turned towards the fellow he had been with before and introduced him, "Frederik Jakobsen," he turned to his right, "Gregor Hahn--let me introduce Mrs. Adeline Rousseau." My stomach turned. I lost my concentration momentarily, and found myself overwhelmed with loathing at the very thought of being wed to Vaughn Rousseau. Van Hecke spoke, "Please join us, Mrs. Rousseau." The men stood and Mr. Hahn pulled out my chair and bade me sit. Fraught with nervousness, I sat down and attempted to explain, "Gentlemen, I am not Mr. Rousseau's wife." Van Hecke resumed pouring his absinthe over a cube of sugar on a filigreed silver spoon. He raised his brow, "Perhaps you can help us to understand why Rousseau would say such a thing." I realised at that moment how very little I knew of all the sordid details of the goings on between these men and my French tutor. Acting on pure impulse, I decided not to smear Vaughn's name as I would have liked, liar though he is. I replied, "Vaughn is a difficult man, to be sure. I presume he was simply projecting his future wishes, as he may not be sure when you fellows might meet again." I made a great effort to put on a pleasant expression. Van Hecke asked, "You are engaged to be married, then?" Rather timidly I answered, "No, not exactly." This time Mr. Jakobsen questioned me, with a bit more amusement in his tone, "Do not keep us in such suspense! We are all anxious to hear how Mr. Rousseau was able to snare such a lady!" I'm quite sure my cheeks were flushed red with embarrassment. "Well, that is just it--he hasn't. I am not quite sure why Mr. Rousseau said what he did, but the fact remains that I am not married to anyone. My name is, in all actuality, Adeline Westley." Van Hecke picked up the absinthe in front of him and placed it in front of me. "Ah. So this is the elusive Miss Westley. Pity Steichen never brought you round. Have a drink with us, dear, and we shall be yours to converse with for the entirety of the night."

I am not sure what you may know about absinthe, Maisie, but in Paris it is quite fashionable. I will say that there are some that vilify the drink as being dangerous--malignant to one's own sanity even. And yet, if I did not drink . . . . I felt I was at a crossroads; here before me was this green, milky libation ... and it seemed to me that it was the essential key to my finding Eduard ... and yet how much was I willing to lose to find the answers? I will not argue should you think less of me, but I could not think on anything apart from inducing these men to talk. I picked up the heavy crystal glass and began to drink. It ignited my throat on the way down, tasting of anise--and nothing could have enchanted these fellows more than to see my eyes grow wide as I drank. Van Hecke called out to the waiter, "Another carafe, please! And bring the Suisse this time!" I am not without some good sense though, Maisie, for I limited myself to just the one glass before me, as Van Hecke and his cohorts drank the absinthe without restraint. After an hour of musing with these fellows, I turned to Mr. Hahn, who had remained the more silent of the three, and asked as nonchalantly as I could, "Do you know where I might find Steichen these days?" He adjusted his shirt cuffs, looking uneasy and said, "Forgive my asking, jonge dame, but we are not ignorant of the way Steichen ... conducted himself. Why are you so eager to find him?" I was unprepared for such candour, and was unsure how to defend myself. I replied, "Eduard made some grievous mistakes, yes--but should that mean he is denied the means to earn redemption?" Mr. Hahn cast his eyes away, "I am curious to know what Steichen has done to gain absolution in your eyes." Van Hecke leaned in across the table top and began to speak before I could answer, "Steichen has a brilliant mind. It is a crime he absconded." My spirit sank as I recalled the stinging pain of Eduard's betrayal.

As the evening trolled on, I discovered a wealth of information--none of which was helpful to my cause, of course. Van Hecke is Belgian and Mr. Hahn, Dutch; the both of them are painters. Mr. Jakobsen is German and a photographer, like Eduard. These fellows were good company, but as the hours passed I began to notice the inevitable effects of the absinthe, and was rather concerned with revealing more than I ought. The dim lights of the cafe began to cause my head to ache. Maisie, I was not myself. Without forethought or a measure of restraint I asked Mr. Van Hecke why it is he loathes Mr. Rousseau. His did not hesitate to answer, "Rousseau is an ass. We tolerated him for a time because Steichen seemed to like him. Rousseau lost what little grace we had granted him when he chose to make a fool of himself for all to see." This was intriguing, Maisie. "What do you mean?" I asked. Van Hecke looked around at the others as if to invite sympathy as he explained, "He delivered a tongue-lashing that would have shamed a nun. I mean no disrespect, but a man has not the right to chastise another man about his choice in women--and none of us would put up with him after that." It took a moment for the scene he had just described to materialize in my head. "You mean to say, Vaughn scolded Eduard? For ... for leaving me?" "That is precisely what I mean--it was here in the Café. He told Steichen to--what was it again, Frederik?" Jakobsen cleared his throat, "I believe it was to 'crawl on his belly back to whence he came.'" Mr. Hahn interjected, "But that wasn't the worst of it--he told Steichen that you were in love with him." I was stunned and completely rapt, sure I was soon to hear the reason for Eduard's return. "What did Eduard say?" I asked. Van Hecke replied, "He called Rousseau a liar, and--" here he stopped short. The men consulted each other with guilty glances. Van Hecke spoke first, "The rest is inconsequential, mademoiselle." I was irate, "I may be a woman, but I am not witless. You needn't protect me from whatever it is." When none of them seemed on the point of speaking, I abandoned attempts at decorum and shouted at him, "Tell me the rest!" Van Hecke paused, then went on, "the two men got into a brawl, Steichen came out victorious, and that was the last we had seen of Rousseau until the night he arrived with you." Was I being taken for a fool? I pressed, "No--what was it that Steichen said after he called Vauhn a liar?" Van Hecke looked thoughtful, and said soothingly, "Now, Mademoiselle Westley--" I wouldn't have any of it, Maisie, I was determined to know, but before I could more than open my mouth to command him to tell me, Jakobsen said what Van Hecke would not: "Steichen said Rousseau could have you if he liked, that he was finished." I could feel my heart crumble to dust inside my chest. My eyes filled with tears, wetting my face as they ran down my cheeks onto my neck. Van Hecke took my hand and said, "Cherie, none of this matters--Steichen is gone--we haven't seen him for months." I withdrew my hand and began to stutter, "Y-you are wrong--he has returned--he saved my life." Mr. Hahn glanced at his watch and said to Van Hecke, "Let's get her to a carriage. She said she is staying at the Westley estate, up north." I began to protest, but already the three of them were standing to help me to the door. I wrenched myself free of their grip and said, "I am quite capable of walking unsupported." This was quite far from the truth, though, Maisie. As I stumbled out to the door I spied a man sitting alone in a darkened corner of the bistro. He was wearing a homburg hat, Maisie ... it was Eduard. I ran to him, he rose to catch me in his arms, and I kissed his face, murmuring with all the energy of my passion and the abandon imparted by the absinthe, "Eduard, you came back and all is forgiven--" But an unfamiliar voice assaulted my ears as the man stepped into the light, "Mademoiselle, I am sure you are mistaken ... " He gently removed my arms from around his neck, and, gazing up at this complete stranger, I could see I had indeed made a grave mistake. The man I had just unduly molested steadied me. Van Hecke and Mr. Jakobsen came to my aide and apologized on my behalf, as I was unable to speak. They fetched me a carriage, instructing the driver to take me home. I felt quite ill, and fell into a nightmarish sort of sleep on the brief drive to the estate. I could barely move or speak, but I was aware enough to feel the driver trying unsuccessfully to arouse me from my trance. To my complete mortification, the driver rang for Mr. Westley to fetch his fare. My memory is foggy, but I remember quite clearly the glare of anger that was in Mr. Westley's eyes as he escorted me upstairs and to my bedroom. He instructed my hand maid to clean me up and put me to bed as if I were a child of two.
I suppose I should listen to your advice more often, Maisie. Eduard has not returned--and my imagination and wishful thinking has once more gotten the better of me. And now it is as if Eduard has left me all over again. My only comfort in all this is that, although it was not Eduard, someone came to my aide that night; someone must care for my safety. Do cheer me up, Maisie. I shall ask Mr. Westley if he will grant me permission to attend your wedding, but not for a few weeks yet--I shan't be given much license by my uncle after my most disgraceful arrival home from Montparnasse. At least, not until time has softened the outrageousness of my indiscretions. Will your mother be making your dress? Do write soon, dearest.


Adeline Westley

23 rue Saint Paul

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