Authors: Anne Rice
Lights twinkled beyond, through the thick forest of oak and cypress that rose behind the
, a swamplike growth that divided all the cottages of the Rue Ste. Anne from those of the Rue Dumaine. It was a lovely thing this wild untended place of knotted figs and knife-blade banana, of wild roses and the ivy that hung from the branches of the oaks in heavy drifts that often lifted all of a piece with the breeze. Crickets sang here at twilight, and obliterating the rattle and chatter of supper tables, and the cry of children, they lent a graceful privacy to this close and crowded block. It was sweet now to see no more of distant windows than a sudden tiny burst of yellow light among the shifting leaves, somewhat like the blinking of a star. Marcel had always loved these rooms, and as a little child came here to watch the sundown or rush from room to room over vistas of dusty floor. Last summer, Monsieur Philippe had begun to call it, quite suddenly, the
. And in a matter of weeks, he was saying with a weary shrug, “Why the cottage is so small, he ought to be out there now and leave this place to you and Marie.” Cecile was shocked. “Why,
, on the plantation, he would have been moved before now. It’s
Marcel had said to Richard with the same weary gesture. Richard had laughed. Of course the man did not want to go on making love to Cecile within the hearing of an adolescent son, what did that matter? Marcel was ecstatic, and Monsieur Philippe, whatever his motives, had some sense himself that the move for Marcel was a splendid thing. A narrow convent bed was made especially for the small room, a desk sent up, and he came one evening from the plantation with a series of old framed paintings, dim beneath their crazed varnish, saying they might look quite good on those walls.
he sighed when he saw Marcel’s sketches everywhere. He drew
on his cigar and letting the ash fall, he smiled. “Do as you like,
, after all, the place is yours.” A Turkey carpet arrived a day later, worn, but quite beautiful still and very soft.
…it had been a refuge since the beginning, but now? Marcel would have lost his mind had he not had that door with its latch behind him. It was sanctuary.
“Je suis un criminel,”
he tested the lovely epithet on the empty air. Tears came again. Turning, he bent gently to the lamp on his desk and lowered the small flame. Then taking the chair in both hands he brought it near to the back window, and sat so he might look out, his feet propped on the sill.
It was not guilt he felt for what he’d done so much as sorrow. He had lost Christophe, and he had known this kind of loss only once before in his life, and he had been as lonely in it then as he was now. This was the loss of Jean Jacques, the cabinetmaker, when Marcel was thirteen years old.
had been begun well enough, it seemed. Nothing unlucky in the thirteen candles. Nevertheless his mother, teasing him, had winked her eye, and said, “A bad age.”
And then came an afternoon, remarkably like many others, on which Marcel had been walking with his Tante Josette to church. She had just come in from the country, her carriage full of baskets of fruit from the orchards of her plantation,
. He loved the name of her plantation, and was saying it over and over to himself as they drifted slowly through the winter street toward the Cathedral. She went always as soon as she arrived to the altar of the Virgin Mary and said a rosary there in thanks for the safe journey from Saint-Domingue years ago before Marcel had been born. Her sisters, Tante Colette and Tante Louisa, were in a paroxysm for days before these visits, and with Cecile’s help veritably renovated their dress shop in the Rue Bourbon and the long flat in which they lived, above. These women had reared Cecile, having brought her with them in that flight from Saint-Domingue for which Tante Josette gave thanks.
What had there been in his life before that afternoon, when he and Tante Josette had set out for church? Only routine and wondrous events such as the beginning of school, suppers with the family of his new classmate, Richard Lermontant, the change of the seasons, the Mardi Gras, and those long afternoons he had spent with his friend Anna Bella Monroe reading English novels, talking of pirates, and walking out sometimes hand in hand like brother and sister along the broad ditches of the outlying streets where minnows swam and frogs croaked amid the high weeds. And boredom, utter and complete boredom, that made the blue sky a monstrous and eternal roof and the miracle of white butterflies in wild vacant lots hypnotic and somehow grating.
Tante Josette was an eccentric woman, preferring grace in old age to nonsense in manner and dress, wore her gray hair back in a chignon, and was in dark blue always regardless of the weather, though this was sometimes trimmed with a little lace, but more often with jet. And she was talking, low and steady, to him as she walked, reading the signs over shops and the funeral notices tacked to the lamp posts, and picking out places where the brick banquettes were “a disgrace,” and lifting her skirts carefully above her long thin leather boots, then she stopped short and with a quick bow nodded to the cabinetmaker, Jean Jacques, at his door, and said low, under her breath, “That man taught himself everything that he knows.”
Marcel heard these words, as if they had flashed clear suddenly from so much that was of no concern to him and turning back he looked at the man, Jean Jacques.
“Even to read and to write,” she said. And no more about it.
Of course he had seen Jean Jacques a hundred times: an old mulatto from Saint-Domingue with skin far darker than Cecile’s and gray hair perfectly like wool around his ancient skull, he had often frightened the children, walking as he did with hands behind his back, a rusty wide-pocketed coat hanging well below his knees, the heavy folds of his brown skin lending him a brooding expression, so you feared he would stamp his foot at you if you came near: he never did. His thick lips moved silently as he turned the pages of his missal at Mass, and from a worn cloth purse he drew coins for each collection, and sometimes soiled dollar bills.
And there had always been his shop with its shingle in the Rue Bourbon. He made all manner of furniture to order, including pieces that he covered with damask and velvet as well as those crafted entirely from wood.
But it was later that afternoon when the winter dusk was dreary, and Marcel had broken away to wander by himself in the streets, that he saw—really saw—Jean Jacques.
His doors lay open to the bustling street, and the potbellied stove showed a heap of red coals behind him, while in the warm light of his smoking lamps, his sleeves rolled above the elbow, he bent on one knee in the fragrant shavings, his arm moving the silver chisel so smoothly and regularly along the leg of the delicate chair before him that it seemed he didn’t carve the piece at all, rather merely discovered under the wood the marvelous curve that had been hidden there all the time. Chairs for sale stood in a row by the door; and others hung in the shadows along the walls, while bolts of cloth gleamed on high shelves, and on a small desk as fine as anything that might carry a price, its French polish shining dully in the light, lay an open ledger in which Marcel could see the long lines of slanting purple script. Here
and there were thick catalogues and engravings taken from them of fine furniture which must have been his models, and on a sturdy simple bench lay all his tools which he would lift with reverence now and again in the manner of the priest gone to the side altar for the washing of his hands.
“That man taught himself all that he knows…” came the low and enigmatic voice, all the more rich with meaning for its monotone, “even to read and to write.” And the words were mingled with this vibrant and aromatic place that shone in the thin winter rain with the magic of a stage; and passersby became blind men.
It was not long after that Jean Jacques, having seen Marcel so often stranded for a half hour or more in the open doorway, asked him to come inside.
He made strong coffee on the iron stove, and poured it with the hot milk in one stream into the china cups, giving one to the boy and taking the other, though he stood always with a knotted fist on his hip as he drank and went back to work when the cup was yet half full. Marcel, stiff in a straightback chair, asked politely the name of this tool, that style of chest, what kind of wood was this? He waited patiently for the slow replies, the pauses so long sometimes he’d thought the man had forgotten, only to hear the answer finally: this chisel is tempered for wood, you see, and this one for stone. Jean Jacques placed a square of marble into the neat frame of a table top, having made the four sides smooth to touch.
Rudolphe Lermontant, Richard’s father, came in one afternoon carrying a batch of slats bound with cord. “Look at this,” he said angrily, as the old man cut the bundle loose and lifted the lacquered pieces. “A fine little table, and they let it fall from the cart on the way from Charleston, sometimes I…” he smacked his fist into the palm of his hand. “And then they say it was already ruined, all the glue come undone, I don’t believe it. That’s my daughter for you.” He threw a furious glance at Marcel who stood decorously and self-consciously on the edge of the room. “You know Giselle, aaaahhh!”
The old man had it done by the end of the week when Marcel came after school, a jewel of inlaid rosewood and glinting mahogany, the tiny drawer sliding back and forth, back and forth beneath the table top as if it were on magic wheels. Even the key turned again in the polished brass of the lock where it had once been rusted tight. “Ah, so many of them no longer have the key,” said Jean Jacques with slow wonder as if this were the remarkable aspect of it all, this good luck. Rudolphe, stunned, said, “Monsieur, name your price. My grandmother bought this table when this place was a walled colonial town.”
Jean Jacques’ heavy shoulders shook with silent laughter. “Don’t say
such a thing to a shopkeeper, Monsieur,” he said. But then serious, he wrote some figures on a slip of yellow paper. Rudolphe paid it at once from his pocket.
Later, that Sunday afternoon, Marcel, entering the Lermontant house for dinner, saw that small table nestled between the heavily draped French windows. A brass lamp stood in the center of it casting a loving light on the curved drawer, its shining key, the tapered legs. “And this was made,” he whispered, approaching it. He touched the surface which felt like wax. “Made!”
“Marcel!” Rudolphe snapped his fingers behind him. All the room was filled with things that were made, made by someone with chisels, saws, the pot of glue and the bottles of oil, and the soft cloths and the tiny pegs, and hands that felt the object all over as if it were living, breathing, growing into its perfect shape.
“Sometimes, my boy,” Rudolphe whispered to him as he reached for his shoulders, “you have the perfect vacant stare of the village idiot!”
It was easy between them, Marcel and Jean Jacques. There was never any explanation for Marcel’s being there. Time and again he slipped in while the man worked, or talked with his customers, or seated at his desk, filled that ledger not with long columns of figures but neat sentences, paragraphs, which he wrote with quite rapid dips of his pen. Never was much said. There was no need. But Marcel burned with the one question he could not ask, how did you do it, how did you learn all of this yourself?
From a picture in a book, Jean Jacques made a rounded and gilded fern stand for the rich Celestina Roget who was so delighted she clapped her hands like a child, and visiting the parlor of an old white woman in the Rue Dumaine he came back to make three more chairs for her to match the one and only that had survived the crossing from France. With knotted fingers sometimes he threaded his own needle and bound the edges of the flowered damask before he stretched it to fit the rounded seat of a settee. But how did it all begin, was Tante Josette right? She had said it with such authority, and gone home again to
, her plantation in the Cane River country, before Marcel could catch her alone.
No matter if he had teachers really. What had enabled him to learn? What had removed this man from the commonplace and given him the gift of spinning straw into gold?
Learning for Marcel was agony at times. It was only after a long tutelage with his friend Anna Bella and hard work in Monsieur De Latte’s class that the magnificent world of books had opened to him, and even now he struggled, against all his native inclinations, to make
something coherent, if not beautiful from the Latin verses he did not really understand. Oh, how he envied Anna Bella that she could read English by the hour, as easily as French, and curling up in a chair by her bed, laugh aloud to herself over the pages of
, or fall into the spell of a penny romance.
But there was no way this boy in starched Irish linen and velvet waistcoat could ask the working man such questions. And how tastelessly it would have betrayed an admiration that was fast growing into love. He longed to take the broom from the man’s hands at the end of the day’s work, or help him wipe the oil again and again from the chair leg as it slowly darkened. But Marcel had never touched a broom in his life; his hands lay still at his sides, there was no dark stain in the fine lines of his fingers, nor beneath his carefully trimmed nails.