A/N: Written for the Ladies' Month thing we have on the forum. So here for our perusal, the thoughts of a certain Mlle. Gillenormand at seven moments in her life.
Hestia and Her Kindred
Her story, or rather lack of one, all began at her mother's deathbed. Even in later years she could still see the room in its sharpest detail: her mother lying pale and too still in bed, the doctors arguing among themselves in a corner, and her little sister squalling in the arms of the nursemaid. The only person absent of course had been their father. She had not even bothered changing out of her stiff boarding school dress, but as soon as she had set down her belongings she rushed to her mother's bedside and clasped her hand. "Maman? Maman, I'm here!" she had shouted.
Madame Gillenormand could only open her eyes for a second. Those once lustrous hazel orbs were now dull, made even more forlorn by her limp dark hair dragging about her face. "Celeste?"
"It's me. I'm home," she said. She loved it when her mother used her pet name 'Celeste', which always sounded so much better than her given name 'Celestine'. "Maman, you'll be better now-"
Madame Gillenormand shook her head tiredly as she let go of her eldest child's hand. "You be a good girl, Celeste. Be a good girl for your sister."
"But Maman-" Celestine protested, only a moment before the doctors returned to the bed. "Is she dying? What are you going to do her?"
"We have to try another medicine. Run along, Mademoiselle Gillenormand," the most stooped and frightful looking of the physicians had said.
Celestine looked around and saw that her sister and the nurse were now gone. The reek of physic hit her nose, forcing her to bolt out of the room. She ran through the house, past their father's study where she could hear him having a chat with another nice woman who'd come to their home the day before, past guest rooms being emptied for the inevitable arrival of mourners, and all the way up to the quiet nursery in the topmost floor.
Their nurse was already asleep, having had only enough strength to put the younger Gillenormand girl in the cradle before dozing off in a chair. Celestine had to wipe her eyes before going to the cradle to see her sister. "You're too little to know anything, Lucille," she whispered when she saw the little girl staring back at her with a bewildered expression. She figured that she and Lucille were lucky; she'd known their mother for twelve years and Lucille for just two, but other children knew nothing of their parents at all. That did not make the situation any easier though.
Celestine sighed when she saw Lucille whimper and begin to fuss. Before she could scoop up her sister, the nursemaid stirred. "Mademoiselle Gillenormand, what are you doing?" the woman asked sharply.
"Only trying to help," Celestine replied as she backed off from the cradle.
The nursemaid huffed and went to pick up Lucille. "Go somewhere else. Read your lessons."
"Maman is dying."
"Then go pray for her. Say your beads. They taught you at the convent, didn't they?"
"Yes, Madame," Celestine whispered before running off to her own room. She quickly unpacked her trunk and found her purple glass rosary at the bottom of everything, nearly squashed between a pair of stays. She snatched up the beads and clutched them to her chest, knowing better than to trust in human hands to hold.
Celestine and Lucille were both good girls, really. It was just that Celestine never did anything wrong, but Lucille was the one everyone liked. At first Celestine had thought because it was she was too serious from crying all the time for her mother, from worrying where her father was at night, and having to go back to boarding school on top of it all. Then she thought it was because she was always told to be on her knees and pray, a feat which poor Lucille never could do for longer than a quarter of an hour without being reprimanded for restlessness. Yet what else could she do?
The matter became clear to Celestine one winter night, when she had arrived at the worrying age of twenty-five, while Lucille was on the cusp of fifteen. She was in the middle of trying to work through their father's books; their latest valet Rouen had done a shoddy job and there were great losses at stake. Lucille was on the pianoforte, trying to practice a new piece before their tutor was set to arrive the next day. Suddenly the drawing room door swung open such that they could hear the chatter of their father's guests heading to the dining room.
"Oh who are those?" one of the ladies was heard to say.
"The Gillenormand girls, who else?" another woman said.
"Ah, and both unmarried?"
"They have suitors, don't worry. The older one is sensible, that's good. The younger takes after their mother, lucky girl."
Celestine shut her book then and turned a sharp glance towards Lucille, who was pursing her lips as she played through a difficult measure. Somehow Lucille had bloomed through the winter; her cheeks were rosy, her raven hair had tamed itself into wonderful curls, and her blue eyes were always sparkling with wit and laughter. 'How did she ever get that way?' Celestine wondered. She cast a glance at a small glass on a nearby shelf, and saw that her face had grown paler and thinner. Her yellow hair was tied back severely; any attempt to use curling tongs had ended in futility. Now, she could have sworn she had the beginnings of a squint.
Lucille looked up from her playing. "Celestine? Are you well?"
"As always," Celestine muttered, crossing herself before she could harbour any more vain thoughts.
It was the last time she dared to look at a mirror.
"He's a good man! He is fighting for this country!"
"He's fighting under Buonaparte. You know how Papa feels about that."
Lucille's eyes had flashed at Celestine's jibe. "It's only politics, what does it matter to me? Georges will give me a good home. We'll be happy together. He is honourable, respectable, he is a gentleman-"
"Of the wrong sort, Lucille! You only met him at a reception, he wasn't introduced properly the way the other young men were!" Celestine retorted. Yet even she had to admit that to some degree Lucille was right. She had never seen her sister smile as brightly as she did on the night that she first laid eyes on that dashing soldier from the Loire, a man by the name of Something-Mercy, or something close to it. 'That is not enough,' she realized as she watched her sister sigh over a forbidden letter.
Lucille glared at Celestine. "Don't look at me that way."
"I don't want you to run away with him. He's a soldier, and if you are his wife you will have to go wherever he goes. Don't you want to stay here in Paris, near me and Papa?"
"Papa will never understand, he won't even talk to him."
"We're supposed to obey," Celestine admonished her. "Don't you love Papa?"
Lucille nodded quickly. "But I love Georges too. He loves me. Isn't that also a good thing too?"
"It's not the same!"
"You've never been in love, what would you know?"
Celestine felt as if something had knocked the wind out of her, such that she no longer had the strength to go after Lucille when she stormed out of the room. At twenty-nine, she knew better than to hope for fanciful dreams of romance; with each passing year she became more keenly aware of the whispers behind her back and the pitying stares thrown her way especially among her father's friends. 'You don't have to be in love, you only have to be safe,' she would have said, but Lucille did not emerge from her own room the rest of the day and the entirety of the evening.
She wasn't entirely surprised when on forcing the door open the next morning, the servants found only a note from Lucille, apologizing for running away with Georges Pontmercy. As Monsieur Gillenormand raged and ranted about the brigand who had 'seduced' his daughter, Celestine busied herself with locking up her sister's things before they could be destroyed in their father's anger. 'Now that she's gone, I have to stay,' she realized, knowing there was no other way to keep a broken man anchored.
Luc-Esprit Gillenormand was too proud to write to his second daughter, more so to the brigand that was his son-in-law. That did not mean Celestine could forget her sister.
It had taken months till a note had suddenly arrived at the Rue des Filles du Calvaire, tucked in between some loaves of bread. This was how Celestine finally learned that her sister was now Mme. Pontmercy, and that they had now found a place in Vernon.
A year later a longer letter arrived in a basket of fruit, delivered by a man who had served in Lafayette's regiment. This one was an announcement, of the birth of a son. Celestine was invited to attend the christening, but she had politely declined thanks to their father's business matters.
This sporadic correspondence kept up for several years, always being concealed in baskets of food or other packages. So when one day, an actual letter arrived at the door, delivered by a courier, Celestine took it straight up to their father's study.
"Lucille is dead," she told him. She did not dare relay what was recounted in the note; her father did not have to know the horrible details of a death in childbirth. "She will be buried in Vernon, in two days."
Luc-Esprit Gillenormand did not say anything for several long moments, almost leading Celestine to believe that her words had been a blow, that her father had been felled right where he was sitting. Suddenly the old man started and turned around; his eyes were now red when he regarded his only remaining daughter. "Give me a paper and pen," he ordered.
Celestine did not find out what exactly her father wrote back. However the matter became clear when at evening the next day, a coachman arrived at the Rue des Filles du Calvaire. A little boy with raven hair and dark eyes had stepped out, still wiping the tearstains from his cheeks.
It was in this fashion that Celestine first met her nephew Marius.
Much to Celestine's dismay, Marius too was also serious and silent. "It's because he's always around you, Mademoiselle. Your father is too stern with him too," her chapel friend once told her. "A boy like him needs friends his age. He's only sixteen."
"He got it from his father," Celestine insisted. She could not imagine where else her nephew could have acquired such a brooding air. 'At the very least he's good and quiet, and doesn't cause me much trouble,' she consoled herself. Of course she knew that her father would say otherwise; every single day he shooed Marius out or called him a rogue or a knave. Yet it was better than being ignored altogether.
She knew this because it was silence that her father offered whenever other kin came to visit. It did not matter if they were long-lost cousins, or new faces such as a nephew about Marius' age, a cadet set on joining the infantry. "Father, they might think you are forgetting them," she told him one Christmas, after the last of their relations had left after dinner.
"Nonsense. Eighty years isn't enough to addle my brains," Monsieur Gillenormand snapped.
"You're right," Celestine said, making sure that her father did not see her shrug.
When a year later, Marius declared himself a baron and thus was told to leave the house, Celestine wished for the first time that she had said something more.
To Celestine's added dismay it turned out that Marius had inherited Lucille's quality of being stubborn. Every time Celestine sent out sixty pistols for his needs, the money returned untouched. 'How does he get on?' she always wondered each time she found the money again in the same envelope she had posted it in.
Now and then she risked glancing about for him, hoping for some glimpse of him in the neighbourhood of Saint-Sulpice where she still heard Mass, or perhaps when she chanced to take a carriage ride through the Latin Quartier. She never saw him in these places, or heard of his name among the students who gathered at the Pantheon.
Then one night in summer, she had been at her beads again and letting the words simply run through her mind, when she was summoned to see her father. She found him speaking irately to a slender, sombrely dressed young man.
"Monsieur Marius Pontmercy intends to get married," her father had said, more as if this was a dismissive announcement as opposed to a joyous one.
Celestine nodded dumbly even as she took in her nephew's face. The pallor, the hollows under his eyes, the downturn of his lips were like a living memory to her. 'Oh Lucille he really is your son,' she thought, but before she could properly greet him her father dismissed her with a wave of his hand. She did not have time to return to her prie-de-dieu before she heard the doors close, her father crying out, "Marius! Marius!" over the footsteps of the young man leaving with a despondent, heavy heart.
It would be nearly two days more till Celestine saw her sister's child again. This time he was silent, more dead than alive from his wounds sustained on a barricade. This time Celestine did not have to be told what to do; she returned to the prie-de-dieu to beg for a life harder than she ever had before.
Her name was Cosette, or to be more to the point Euphrasie, but she would always be just Cosette. She had dark hair in ringlets, a well-formed face, and deep blue eyes that were pensive yet joyous.
When Cosette laughed, Celestine started; for a moment she thought she was hearing Lucille once more. But no, Cosette was not laughing at a song or at a story, but she was laughing at Marius' bedside, delighting in seeing him on the mend after so many weeks of convalescence. Celestine smiled and turned away at the sight, feeling an unbidden wish spring to her lips albeit so many years too late.
"How clever of our Marius, to have found such a beauty!" her father had chortled. "You've done it wrong, my daughter! What use are your Ave Marias beside this felicity?
Celestine this time shrugged. "So you may say, Father," she said demurely. She had to agree, it was not so bad to play an unnoticed part.