I don’t know what they did after we ran away. A couple of days later old Gustave’s body was found in the Loire by a fisherman outside Courl'e. The fish had been at him already. No one mentioned what had happened at La Mauvaise R'eputation, though the Dupr'e brothers seemed more furtive than ever and an unusual silence hung over the caf'e. Reinette didn’t mention what had happened, and I pretended I’d run off at the same time as Cassis, so she didn’t suspect what I’d seen. But she had changed in some way. She seemed cold, almost aggressive. When she thought I wasn’t looking she would touch her hair and face compulsively, as if checking for something out of place. She avoided school for several days, claiming she had stomach ache.
Surprisingly, Mother indulged her. She sat with her, mixing her hot drinks and talking to her in a low, urgent voice. She moved Reinette’s cot into her own room, something she had never done before for either me or Cassis. Once I saw her give her two tablets, which Reinette took reluctantly, protesting. From my spy place behind the door I caught a snatch of their conversation, in which I thought I caught the word curse. Reinette was quite ill for some days after the pills, but recovered soon enough, and no more was said about the incident.
There is little relating to this in the album. On one page my mother writes R-C fully recovered under a pressed marigold and a recipe for wormwood tisane. But I’ve always had my suspicions. Could the pills have been some kind of a purgative, in case of an unwanted pregnancy? Could they have been the pills to which Mother refers to in the journal entry? And was T. L. Tomas Leibniz?
I think Cassis might have guessed something, but he was far too absorbed in his own affairs to take great notice of Reinette. Instead he learned his lessons, read his magazines, played in the woods with Paul and pretended nothing had happened. Perhaps for him, nothing had.
I tried to talk to him about it once.
“Something happened? What do you mean, something happened?” We were sitting at the top of the Lookout Post, eating mustard sandwiches and reading The Time Machine. It had been my favorite story all summer, and I never tired of it. Cassis looked at me, his mouth full, his eyes not quite meeting mine.
“I’m not sure.” I was careful what I said, watching his placid face over the hard cover of the book. “I mean, I only stayed a minute longer, but-” Difficult to put it into words. There were no words for that kind of thing in my vocabulary. “They nearly caught Reinette,” I said lamely. “Jean-Marie and the others. They…they pushed her down against the wall. They tore her blouse,” I said.
There was more, if only I could find the words. I tried to recall the feeling of horror, of guilt that had come over me then, the feeling that I was about to witness some ugly, compelling mystery, but somehow everything had become unclear, grainy, like images in a dream.
“Gustave was there,” I continued desperately.
Cassis was getting irritable. “So?” he said in a sharp voice. “So what? He was always there, the old tosspot. So what’s new about that?” And still his eyes refused to meet mine, lingering on the page, skittering to and fro like dead leaves in the wind.
“There was a fight. A kind of fight.” I had to say it. I knew he didn’t want me to, saw his fixed gaze deliberately avoiding me, concentrating on the page, the page, and wishing I’d shut up.
Silence. In silence our wills fought each other, he with his years and his experience, me with the weight of my knowledge.
“Do you think maybe-”
He turned on me then, ferociously, his eyes bright with rage and terror. “Think what, for Christ’s sake? Think what?” he spat. “Haven’t you done enough already, with your deals and your plans and your clever ideas?” He was panting, his face hectic and very close to mine. “Don’t you think you’ve done enough?”
“I don’t know what…” I was almost in tears.
“Well, think, why don’t you?” yelled Cassis. “Let’s say you suspect something, shall we? Let’s say you know why old Gustave died.” He paused to watch my reaction, his voice lowering to a harsh whisper. “Let’s say you suspect someone. Who’re you going to tell? The police? Mother? The fucking Foreign Legion?” I watched him, feeling wretched but not showing it, staring him out in my old insolent way.
“We couldn’t tell anyone,” said Cassis in an altered voice. “Not anyone. They’d want to know how we knew. Who we’d been talking to. And if we said”-his eyes flickered away from mine-“if ever we said anything-to anyone-”
He broke off suddenly and turned back to the book. Even his fear had gone, replaced instead by a wary indifference.
“It’s a good thing we’re just kids, isn’t it?” he remarked in a new, flat voice. “Kids are always playing at stuff. Finding things out, detectives, things like that. Everyone knows it isn’t real. Everyone knows we just make it up.”
I stared at him. “But Gustave-” I said.
“Just an old man,” said Cassis, unconsciously echoing Tomas. “Fell in the river, didn’t he, drinking too much wine. Happens all the time.”
“We never saw anything,” said Cassis stolidly. “Not you, not me, not Reinette. Nothing happened. All right?”
I shook my head. “I did see. I did.”
But Cassis would not look at me again, retreating behind the pages of the book, where Morlocks and Eloi warred furiously behind the safe barriers of fiction. And every time I tried to talk to him about it subsequently he pretended not to understand, or to think I was playing some kind of make-believe game. In time perhaps he even came to believe it himself.
Days passed. I removed all traces of the orange bag and the orange peel hidden in the anchovy barrel, and I buried them in the garden. I had the feeling that I wouldn’t be using them again.
Woke at six this morning, for the first time in months. Strange, how everything looks different. When you haven’t slept it’s as if the world is sliding away bit by bit. The ground isn’t quite in line with your feet. The air seems full of shiny stinging particles. I feel I’ve left a part of myself behind, but I can’t remember what. They look at me with such solemn eyes. I think they’re afraid of me. All but Boise.
She’s not afraid of anything. I want to warn her that it doesn’t last forever.
She was right about that. It doesn’t. I knew that as soon as Noisette was born-my Noisette, so sly, so hard, so like myself. She has a child now, a child I’ve never seen except in a picture. She calls her P^eche. I often wonder how they manage, alone, so far away from home. Noisette used to look at me like that, with those hard black eyes of hers. Remembering now, I realize she looks more like my mother than me.
Not long after the dance at La R'ep, Rapha"el came to call. He made some excuse-buying wine or something-but we knew what he really wanted. Cassis never admitted it, of course, but I could see it in Reine’s eyes. He wanted to find out what we knew. I imagine he was worried-more so than the rest because it was his caf'e, after all, and he felt responsible. Maybe he was simply guessing. Maybe someone had talked. In any case he was nervous as a cat when my mother opened the door, his eyes darting into the house behind her then out again. Since the dance, business at La Mauvaise R'eputation had been bad. I’d heard someone at the post office-it might have been Lisbeth Gen^et-saying that the place had gone to the dogs, that Germans came there with their whores, that no decent person would be seen there, and though no one had yet made the connection between what happened that night and the death of Gustave Beauchamp, there was no saying when the talk would begin. It was a village, after all, and in a village no one can keep a secret for long.
Well, Mother didn’t give him what you’d call a warm welcome. Maybe she was too conscious of us watching them, too much aware of what he knew about her. Maybe her illness made her sharp, or maybe it was just her naturally surly temperament. She saw him only once more, and two weeks later he was gone and everyone else who had been at La R'ep the night of the dance was dead.
Mother makes only one reference to his visit.
That fool Raphael called. Too late as usual. Told me he knew where he could get me some pills. I said no more.
No more. Just like that. If it had been another woman I wouldn’t have believed it, but Mirabelle Dartigen was no ordinary woman. No more, she said. And that was her last word. To my knowledge she never took morphine again, though that too might have been because of what happened rather than from sheer force of will. Of course, by then there were to be no more oranges, ever again.
I think even I had lost my taste for them.