There is always plenty to do on a farm. Water to bring in from the pump, leaving it in metal buckets on the cellar tiles so that the sun doesn’t warm it, goats to milk, the pail to be covered with a muslin cloth and left in the dairy, the goats then taken to the pasture so that they don’t eat all the vegetables in the garden, hens and ducks to feed, the day’s crop of ripe strawberries to pick, the baking oven to stoke even though I doubted Mother would be doing much baking today. The horse, B'ecassine, to be let out into the pasture and fresh water brought to the troughs. Working at maximum speed it took us the best part of two hours to finish, and by the time we did the sun’s heat was gaining, the night damp already steaming off the baked-earth paths and the dew drying on the grass. It was time to go.
Neither Reinette nor Cassis had mentioned the money question. There was no need. I paid my way, Cassis had told me, assuming that this would be impossible. Reine looked at me oddly as we picked the last of the strawberries, wondering perhaps at my self-assurance, and when she caught Cassis’s eye she giggled. I noticed that she had dressed with especial care this morning-her pleated school skirt, ankle socks and shoes with a red short-sleeved sweater-and her hair was rolled into a fat sausage at the back of her head, secured with hairpins. She smelt unfamiliar too, a kind of sweetish powdery smell like marshmallow and violets, and she was wearing the red lipstick. I wondered if she was meeting someone. A boy, perhaps. Someone she knew from school. She certainly seemed more nervous than usual, picking the fruit with the delicate haste of a rabbit feeding among weasels. As I moved between the rows of strawberry plants I heard her whisper something to Cassis, then I heard her high, nervous giggle.
I shrugged inwardly. I supposed they were planning to go off somewhere without me. I had persuaded Reine to take me, and they would not go back on that promise. But as far as they knew, I had no money. That meant they could go to the pictures without me, perhaps leaving me by the fountain in the market square to wait for them, or sending me on an imaginary errand while they went to meet their friends… Sourly I bit down on the thought. That was supposed to be how it went. So sure of themselves that they had overlooked the one obvious solution to my problem. Reine would never have swum the Loire to the Treasure Stone. Cassis still saw me as the little sister, too much in awe of the adored older brother to hazard the slightest thing without his permission. Occasionally he looked at me and grinned his satisfaction, his eyes gleaming with mockery.
We left for Angers at eight o’clock, I riding on the back wheel of Cassis’s huge ungainly bike with my feet wedged perilously beneath the handlebars. Reine’s bicycle was smaller and more elegant, with high handlebars and a leather saddle. There was a bicycle basket across the handlebars in which she carried a flask of chicory coffee, and three identical packets of sandwiches. Reine had tied a white scarf around her head to protect her coiffure, and the tails whipped at her nape as she rode. We stopped three or four times on our way-to drink from the flask in Reine’s bicycle basket, to check a soft tire, to eat a piece of bread and cheese in lieu of breakfast. At last we came to the suburbs of Angers, passing the coll`ege-closed now for the holidays and guarded by a pair of German soldiers at the gate-and down streets of stucco houses toward the town center.
The cinema, the Palais-Dor'e, was in the main square, close to where the market was held. Several rows of small shops lined the square, most of which were opening for the morning, and a man was washing down the pavement with a bucket of water and a broom. We pushed the bikes then, steering them into an alley between a barber’s and shuttered butcher’s shop. The alley was barely wide enough to walk through, and the ground was piled with rubble and debris; it seemed safe to assume that our bikes would be left alone. A woman at the terrasse of a caf'e smiled at us and called a greeting; a few Sunday customers were already there, drinking bowls of chicory and eating croissants or hard-boiled eggs. A delivery boy went by on a bicycle, ringing his bell importantly; by the church a newspaper stand sold single-sheet bulletins. Cassis looked round, then made his way to the newsstand. I saw him hand something to the newspaper man, then the man handed Cassis a bundle, which quickly vanished into Cassis’s trouser waistband.
“What was that?” I asked.
Cassis shrugged. I could see that he was pleased with himself, too pleased to withhold the information just to annoy me. He lowered his voice conspiratorially and allowed me a glimpse of rolled-up papers, which he immediately covered up again.
“Comic books. Serial story.” He winked at Reine self-importantly. “American film magazine.”
Reine uttered a squeak of excitement and made as if to grab his arm. “Let me, let me see!”
Cassis shook his head irritably. “Shh! For God’s sake, Reine!” He lowered his tone again. “He owed me a favor. Black market,” he mouthed. “Kept them for me under the counter.”
Reinette looked at him in awe. I was less impressed. Perhaps because I was less aware of the scarcity of such items; perhaps because the seeds of rebellion already growing in me pushed me to scorn anything of which my brother seemed overly proud. I gave a shrug to show my indifference. Still, I wondered what kind of “favor” the newspaper man might have owed Cassis, and finally concluded that he must have been bragging. I said as much.
“If I had contacts with the black market,” I said with a passable show of skepticism, “I’d make sure I got better stuff than a few old papers.”
Cassis looked stung. “I can get anything I want,” he said quickly. “Comics, smokes, books, real coffee…chocolate-” He broke off with a scornful laugh. “You can’t even get the money for a rotten cinema ticket!” he said.
“No?” Smiling, I took the purse from out of my apron pocket. I jingled it a little, so that he could hear the coins inside. His eyes widened as he recognized the purse.
“You little thief!” he breathed at last. “You rotten, bitching little thief!”
I looked at him, but said nothing.
“How did you get that?”
“Swum out and got it,” I answered defiantly. “Anyway, it wasn’t stealing. The treasure belonged to all of us.”
But Cassis was hardly listening. “You bitching, thieving…” he said again. Clearly he was disturbed that anyone other than he should obtain anything by guile.
“I don’t see that it’s any different from you and your black market,” I said calmly. “It’s all the same game, isn’t it?” I let this sink in before I continued. “And you’re just upset because I’m better at it than you.”
Cassis glared at me. “It isn’t anything like the same thing,” he said at last.
I kept my expression disbelieving. It was always so easy to make Cassis give himself away. Just like his son, all those years later. Neither of them ever understood anything about guile. Cassis was red-faced, almost shouting now, his conspiratorial tone forgotten. “I could get you anything you liked. Proper fishing tackle for your stupid pike,” he hissed savagely. “Chewing gum, shoes, silk stockings, silk underwear if you wanted-” I laughed aloud at that. Brought up as we had been, the idea of silk underwear was ludicrous. Enraged, Cassis grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me.
“You stop that!” His voice cracked with fury. “I got friends! I know people! I could get-you-anything-you-wanted!”
You see how easy it was to take him off balance. Cassis was spoiled in his way, too used to being the great older brother, the man of the house, the first to go to school, the tallest, the strongest, the wisest. His occasional bouts of wildness-his escapades into the woods, his daredevilry on the Loire, his small thefts from market stalls and shops in Angers-were uncontrolled, almost hysterical. He took no enjoyment from them. It was as if he needed to prove something to both of us, or to himself.
I could tell I perplexed him. His thumbs were digging so deeply into my arms that they would make great ripe blackberry marks on my skin the next day, but I did not show any sign of it. Instead I just looked at him steadily and tried to stare him out.
“We’ve got friends, Reine and me,” he said in a lower voice, almost reasonable now, his thumbs still gouging into my arms. “Powerful friends. Where do you think she got that stupid lipstick? Or the perfume? Or that stuff she puts on her face at night? Where d’you think we got all that from? And how d’you think we earned it?”
He let go of my arms then with an expression of mingled pride and consternation, and I realized that he was slick with fear.