(This excerpt is from the opening of chapter one.)
The muffled clatter of rain on slate infused the grubby attic room of the grubby inn with a palpable gloom, while the relentless drip caught by a cracked chamber pot provided an unnecessary reminder of the wretchedness of her state… plic… plic… plic
For five days, Mrs. Biddle had waited for word. For five days, tension waxed as food and money waned—just as it had throughout the long, wet French spring… plic… plic… plic…
Eight months on the Pas-de-Calais, the last three in another leaking attic room, where for the first time in her life Mrs. Biddle had been compelled to accept charity. And that she resented most of all. Resented the fact of it, if not the cause. Now, in this last week of May, she had come to Cherbourg on a vague promise from a dubious man. And for five days and nights, she waited… plic… plic… plic…
Her mood, never one that could be judged sunny, had turned as foul as the weather. Still, as she sponged herself before the few remaining shards of a shattered mirror, Mrs. Biddle took solace in the resplendent, if intermittent, view. She had recovered nicely from her long infirmity. And what was privation to a woman who fed on adversity as lesser women feed on pastry? Tension for her was simply the unavoidable precursor to action. In this she resembled nothing so much as a coiled spring. A rather good-looking coiled spring, to be sure. Few others sported so statuesque a figure, so clear a complexion, or so blonde and lush a mane. As frequently happened, Mrs. Biddle was cheered by her own superiority. But, speaking honestly, she couldn’t deny she was a coiled spring in dire need of a good bath.
She had just finished dressing when there was a knock.
“Un message, madame
Mrs. Biddle opened the door and took a handwritten note from a boy in an ill-fitting uniform. As she read, he waited. She looked down at him in disgust.
” she shouted.
He made a face, then spat back over his shoulder, “Gadoue!
It was with the slamming of the door that the fruit of Mrs. Biddle’s recent infirmity announced herself from her makeshift cradle—a small drawer suspended by cord from the peak of a dormer. Her mother picked her up and brought her to the bed. Then hoped against hope that the well had not yet run dry. For like her mother, Eugenia was not one to give up easily.
The name—meaning as it does well-born
—was chosen as testament to Mrs. Biddle’s own opinion of herself. How could her daughter be otherwise? She did, of course, resent the encumbrance on a life which had been kept scrupulously free of encumbrances. Not even marriage was allowed to impinge upon Mrs. Biddle’s devotion to self. But here, at her breast, was an extension of that self, and even if she loved the child only half so much as she loved herself—a daughter’s chromosomal entitlement—it would still be far more than any self-abnegating genetrix could muster.
, little sister!”
A petite girl—no older than seventeen, but last called ingénue at twelve—entered the room bearing a baguette and two pots. She set these on the table, then pulled an orange from one pocket of her jacket and a parcel of soft cheese from the other.
“Where did you spend the night?” Mrs. Biddle asked bitterly.
“Making sure baby sister has some breakfast beside the milk of a witch,” the girl answered in a thick French accent, but nearly correct grammar.
After throwing off her jacket, she tied her russet hair into a loose knot, then pried the baby from her mother—the latter making no protest. She sat down at the table and dunked a finger in the pot of milky chocolate, then let the baby curled in her arm suckle it. Mrs. Biddle rose and rebuttoned her blouse before the broken mirror.
“This is for you to eat,” the girl said, nodding toward the food but not looking upon the woman at the mirror. “I’ve well eaten.”
“Your belly full, is it? Have a care, girl, or soon you’ll find yourself with your own little sister. Or the pox.”
“That makes nothing to me,” the girl told her as she waved the small bottle of holy water she wore on a string about her neck and depended on as spiritual prophylactic.
“Simple peasant. You think that protection enough when you spend the night passing yourself about?”
“I do not
pass myself about!” the girl shouted back indignantly. Realizing her tone had unsettled Eugenia, she softened it. “I was with a… éminent
man, the husband of the mistress of the mayor.”
“He told you the mayor beds his wife?”
“Yes. And why not? It is a… honneur?
“Honor. So, I have the mayor’s cuckold to thank for my breakfast?” Her pride temporarily subdued by the aroma of cheese and coffee, Mrs. Biddle took a place at the table.
“No. This is for baby sister—you are the
cow it must go through first.”
“Then I suppose I must eat my grass.”
“And say meuh!
” the girl added for the benefit of her little sister.
“I’m an American cow,” Mrs. Biddle corrected. Then, in a display that would have shocked any who knew her in the prenatal past, she gave her child a spirited “moo-oo!
“So the cows talk different also?” the girl asked.
“Yes, and the roosters.”
While her elders went through their bilingual bestiary, Eugenia, quite reasonably, looked on in stupefaction. Barely three weeks out of the womb, she had not yet learned an infant must pay for her keep by lavishing signs of amusement on her caretakers whenever they chose to degrade themselves. She was
grateful for the chocolate her benefactress had provided, but surely she had adequately expressed her appreciation by not immediately regurgitating it upon the girl’s blouse.
In truth, the girl—Mélisande, she called herself—was not even ten years younger than her “little sister’s” mother. Though her exact role was a matter of continuous debate, she was an adjunct acquired during the previous winter. She had arrived in étaples sometime before Christmas and Mrs. Biddle had made occasional use of her as factotum, with the girl wanting no payment beyond lessons in English. It was, she claimed, with that objective that she had come to the colony of Anglophones on the Pas-de-Calais.
When the money ran low and Mrs. Biddle economized by moving to the hostel’s attic, the artful girl attended her more frequently—like the others at étaples, she was convinced that sooner or later the proud woman would wire home for passage. For her own part, Mrs. Biddle knew full well the girl was merely ingratiating herself in the hope of securing a berth on the inevitable return voyage to New York. And Mélisande knew that Mrs. Biddle knew.
When spring arrived and the pregnancy proved difficult, Mélisande took on the duties of nurse, and her self-serving motives were mildly diluted with something resembling compassion. But the birth of Eugenia changed everything. Mrs. Biddle was completely dependent on the girl for two weeks, by the end of which Mélisande’s devotion to her “little sister” had become fact.
As a nearby bell struck one, the insufferably precious game ended when neither patron nor retainer could remember the call of a rhinoceros. Her dignified demeanor restored, Mrs. Biddle rose from the table and announced they would be sailing that evening.
Mélisande was ecstatic. Six months of attending this contumelious shrew had worn thin even her good humor. Now, at last, she was sailing to New York. And not as an ignorant provincial likely to end up the exotic in some tenderloin house of sport. She had used her time in étaples wisely, mingling freely with the expatriate poets and artists—in some cases quite freely—and would arrive in New York thoroughly fly.
“I must go off to make arrangements,” Mrs. Biddle told her. “You’ll need to start packing. We catch a boat from the Gare Maritime at five.”
On picking up her jacket, Mrs. Biddle displaced that of the girl. The gold fob of a watch peeked out from a pocket. With a subtle grace born of careful breeding, Mrs. Biddle palmed the watch and slid it into her bag.
Down below, she negotiated her way through the damp, narrow lane, past the broken glass, half-eaten fruit, and filthy progeny of the slum, trying in vain to ignore the over-powering stench of urine. When an inebriated sailor slouching in a doorway made a suggestion she thought demeaning, Mrs. Biddle spat on him without turning her head. Though few would guess it to look at her—especially those unacquainted with her expectorial marksmanship—Mrs. Biddle was no stranger to her milieu. Her first memories were of a street indistinguishable from this in all its essentials, if not its particulars. The drunken sailor, for instance, who now stumbled from his haunt and challenged her with insulting gibes, would have been wearing the uniform of the U.S. Navy rather than that of the French. But if the menace was universal, the methodology employed in confronting it was quite personal. Mrs. Biddle lowered her arm and shook her sleeve. A straight razor fell into her palm.
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To be continued…
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I do hope you’ve enjoyed this scrumptious sample. Those unable to
resist a further helping will be happy to learn that
Babes at Sea is
on sale and awaits your pleasure.