I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had the courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils. *
Paris - Summer 1848
Gazing across Paris from her vantage point on Pont Neuf, Josephine Barry bemoaned the moving field of concentric circles spread out across the Seine. Her mother had warned her, but she'd vainly eschewed her umbrella that morning since it started out bright and she'd heard that in Paris to carry one implied poverty. As such she had no choice as the rain picked up than to run, skirts flying, to the end of the bridge where she found refuge in a tiny bookshop on the riverbank.
A small bell rang out with a musical tinkle when she opened the door, the musty smell that greeted her spoke of hidden worlds. Shaking her head to rid herself of the rain she squeezed her skirts through the narrow spaces between the shelves. Worried that all the books that lined the shelves would be in French, she was delighted to find a small English section. A couple of books caught her eye; she'd heard of them but had not had a chance to read.
Picking them up she smiled when she read the first line, there was no possibility of taking a walk that day*. Josephine made her way to a comfortable armchair and read on. Reasoning that it was alright as she would certainly be purchasing the book when the rain eventually stopped, and she could make her way home. "That Rochester is such a rogue," said a woman's voice with a soft Parisian accent, interrupting the reverie which Josephine had until that moment been enjoying. Somewhat annoyed Josephine turned around to see a smartly dressed young lady peering at her with a smile, "do you mind?"
"Why, not at all. And what's that other one you've got?" She peered at the cover and scowled, "oh, it's impossibly bleak and in the end, the protagonist is murdered! But back to Jane Eyre," the woman sat opposite her and started on a diatribe about this Rochester fellow whom Josephine had yet to encounter. Putting up her hand to stop her was fruitless as she had what Josephine would come to recognise, a certain light in her eyes which meant that she no long really knew to whom she spoke nor where she was. The lady, Josephine would learn could get quite carried away especially when it came to literature, and in time other things as well.
Since she had no idea what the woman was talking about Josephine gave up and let her talk surmising where she was in the Parisian pecking order. Josephine had not been long in Paris whence she had come with her parents for the summer, but already she had noticed that there was a way of doing things. Parisians it appeared, were more forthright than their English counterparts, more inclined to speak their mind and somewhat arrogant in their assumed superiority. As an Englishwoman, Josephine believed they were incorrect in that regard, but she had to admire their confidence. The woman was dressed in a fashionable gown, though her bonnet was decidedly droopy with the rain.
She talked on as if pleased to show off her in-depth knowledge of this Rochester fellow. He certainly sounds like a scoundrel, Josephine thought, if half the things she's saying about him are true. Upon further examination she realised that the lady's dress took on a look of being more fashionable than it was on account of the accessories that adorned it. How clever, what a good way to save money. "… so, although many think of him as an unfortunate, tied to Bertha by the binds of marriage. Personally, I believe he's a rogue, after all we only hear about Bertha's story from his point of view. Do we know if she was as mad as he made out?" she ended with a flourish looking expectantly at Josephine for her opinion on the matter.
"Interesting," responded Josephine. If only because it was apparent a response of some sort was obviously expected.
"But what do you think, what's your opinion of him?"
"Well considering I just picked the novel up five minutes ago, I find I am yet to form one," Josephine replied pointedly.
"You've not read it?" Josephine shook her head. "You should have said, now I've spoiled it for you. Tell you what," the woman peered out the window. "The rain seems to have stopped, why don't I take you for a drink to make up for it. Alors! I forgot to introduce myself, je suis er that is I am Gertrude Bonnet." Josephine was quite well conversed in French, and as such did not require Gertrude's translation but she decided to keep that knowledge to herself for the time being. "Here, to make up for my transgression I shall purchase the book for you, and we will take tea, oui?"
Quite astonished by the turn her morning had taken Josephine allowed the woman to take charge. Arm-in-arm the women walked down the Quai des Orfevres looking for the first café. "Aha, this one is nice, have you tried it before?" Gertrude asked. Josephine had not, she was not terribly familiar with this part of Paris, having not explored yet the Ille de la Cité beyond the usual sights.
Gertrude waved the menus away ordering tea for them both and a plate of cakes saying, "you will love it here. Their cakes are magnifique. But it occurs to me, I don't even know your name, my dear. Who are you?"
That first morning disappeared in a dream. When Josephine tried to recall it in later years, it took on an almost mythical quality. They ate, they drank, laughed, and cried. Somehow, she'd unburdened her entire life story to this alluring young woman. After tea they wandered through the back streets and alleyways, Gertrude proving to be a skilled guide. "I haven't been there," she'd whisper pointing at an unobtrusive door, "but I hear tell that…" and she'd describe the most scandalous piece of gossip to make Josephine's toes curl.
When the Saint Chapelle clock chimed twelve Josephine recalled promising her parents not to be late for their lunch date. "Oh dear, I must go. Mama will be so cross." She looked around momentarily lost.
"Where do you need to be?" Gertrude asked.
"The café within the Tuileries, but I'll never get there in time."
"It's fine. I'll hail you une bateau-mouche, follow me." They walked smartly down towards the river and Gertrude called out to a small craft. In French she directed the man and helped Josephine into the boat, pressing her card into Josephine's palm as she did so. "I had such a lovely time," she called. "We must do it again."
That evening memories of their wondrous morning returned to her as she turned Gertrude's card over and over in her fingers. She had only been a few minutes late and had come up with a weak excuse as to why, but her parents were not overly upset. "I understand," her mother had said. "Paris has that effect upon me too."
The following morning, she sent word to Gertrude via the hotel concierge. They met at the spot they'd parted the previous day and once again she let Gertrude take charge. This time they took another bateau-mouche in the opposite direction, alighting at the Jardin des Plantes whereupon they strolled around admiring the wild animals. Once again Gertrude paid, explaining that she still felt guilty at her exploits of the previous day. Feeling guilty Josephine insisted upon buying lunch.
As they walked, she grew even closer to this intriguing woman. Gertrude described her love for Paris, in all its colours. Her father was an engineer, and her brother was being trained to follow in his footsteps, but Gertrude's education was considered finished.
As they waited for the boat ride back to the city Gertrude examined Josephine appraisingly.
"Don't you like my dress?" Josephine felt self-conscious.
"I do. I do. But…"
"Don't tell me, I feel like such a country bumpkin."
Gertrude looked at her confused, "bump-kin?"
"My apologies, une provinciale," replied Josephine realising too late that she had given herself away.
"Aha, tu parles français!" Gertrude exclaimed.
Josephine blushed, "un peu."
"I bet it is more than a little," Gertrude said in French.
"Well, maybe," Josephine replied in kind.
Henceforth they spoke in both languages, making up words or sentences in the opposite tongue where necessary and laughing together when they failed to comprehend.
The result of their conversation was a trip to a fashionable boutique. The snooty saleswomen turned up their noses at the girls' attire, so Josephine pulled them out the door and they searched until they found one with more accepting staff. Both women stood in their underwear as they let the staff measure every part of them and later helped each other pick out patterns and fabric. Josephine insisted upon paying for both dresses. "How can I let you?" Gertrude said, wringing her hands.
"How can you not?" replied Josephine. "Consider it payment for your excellent Parisian knowledge. I should never have found all those sweet little spots without your assistance."
Josephine begged leave to catch up with Gertrude as often as she could, though at times she was forced to spend the day with her family and in any case, Gertrude had work to do. "Sadly, I am not allowed to gad about Paris all week long," she explained. "I have to help my mother at home."
When she massaged her sore feet one night, Josephine reflected on the wonderful nature of having such a guide as Gertrude. It meant she was getting acquainted with the hidden Paris. While her parents and brother enjoyed their trips to Le Louvre, Notre Dame, Saint Chappelle, and other big attractions; Josephine and Gertrude might be found holed up in a bookshop or a small café drinking absinthe or even in a small theatre watching a show. Gertrude's tastes ran to the less famous parts, but she knew those well and as a result Josephine grew familiar with another side of Paris. This version was made up of quirky yet fascinating folk and more than once Josephine sent a silent thank you up to her old French mistress who had drummed the French tenses into her on boring afternoons back home.
Josephine wasn't sure how the topic came up but as they sat in a café sipping tea one afternoon the topic of capital punishment arose. "Well, have you ever been to a hanging?" Gertrude asked.
"Not often, I mean they happen from time to time. Some people make quite day out of it. The last one I went to was at Newgate," she shuddered. "It's not for me. I went because my friends wanted to see that famous murderer Jack Brown hanged for his crimes, but I would have rather stayed at home."
"Was it absolutely ghastly?" Gertrude asked with a twinkle of excitement in her eyes.
"Abhorrent," replied Josephine more seriously.
"Did you see him drop?"
"I shut my eyes, but I opened them too early so yes I saw him drop and then dance about a bit before his neck broke."
"That's the problem, see," said Gertrude triumphantly. "Here in Paris, it is neater. It's all over in a split second. One day I must take to you the Place de la Concord. You'll see."
Arm in arm they wandered through the streets chatting, Gertrude's love of literature was evident, and she often suggested novels to Josephine who had purchased a small pocketbook to keep track. "Have you had a chance to read Jane Eyre yet?" Gertrude asked Josephine one day.
"Not yet. You've kept me on my toes, and I admit I collapse into bed and fall fast asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow."
"Well hurry up, I'm dying to know your opinion of Rochester. And I want to know what you think of his wife. She's an odd character."
"What about Jane herself?" Josephine asked with a wry smile. It was just like Gertrude not to be overly interested in the heroine.
"Pah, she's wet. I can't stand her," Gertrude scoffed. "I find Bertha far more interesting, what's sent her mad I wonder?" She clapped her hands to her mouth. "Mustn't say more," she said. "I don't want to spoil it for you. But still read it will you, then we can discuss it, as I'm dying to do.
One morning Gertrude was buzzing with excitement. "I've just found out, there's to be execution today. I read about it in the papers. We must go, if only to let you see the difference between the English and French method."
Josephine was reluctant but she let Gertrude summon a carriage to take them to the Place de la Concorde. Like it had been at Newgate there was a carnival atmosphere with hot food and all the taverns spilling out to the street. Entertainers were making the most of the crowd by performing for a small coin and everyone was laughing and smiling, as though they had forgotten the reason they were there.
Gertrude seemed quite caught up in the spectacle whereas Josephine found it macabre, but she tried to hide her fears seeing how Gertrude loved it so. Running to a stall Gertrude bought a bag of roasted chestnuts to munch on while they waited relishing their creamy sweetness. They eavesdropped on their neighbours. Despite the reason for being there the mood was buoyant.
As gruesome as the basket of heads were, she had to admit their deaths were cleaner. Though she did not think she would soon forget the high pitched slicing sound of the blade passing through neck and the terrible finality of the thump when it reached the block. Each criminal walked up the stairs to the platform, some waving farewell, others suitably despondent at the thought of meeting their maker. The bloody blade glistening in the sunshine. "How awful to see it like that," Josephine murmured to Gertrude. "Imagine seeing the instrument of your death."
Josephine shut her eyes again when the crowd went quiet in anticipation, but the crunch of the head falling into the basket reverberated around square. She shuddered as the roar went up and watched with horror as yet another victim was led up the stairs. "No!" she said to Gertrude. "No, no, no," she repeated as she backed away, the crowd behind her making way and then closing over the spot where she had once stood.
"Stay, don't you love the atmosphere?" Gertrude implored her.
"No, it's horrid. I'm getting a carriage. I need to get home." Gertrude looked at her and then back to see the man kneeling by the block. She bounced on her toes, obviously torn. "You can stay if you like," Josephine said. "But I'm off." She hailed a carriage and drove away not caring that Gertrude stared sadly at her disappearing carriage or that she hailed her own transport and followed.
* Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte