Part 1 1931-39
Old plane trees reach limb to limb over the wide avenue and, under the parasols of yellow September leaves, a wide black Packard glides. Stippled light, rose and bronze, falls here and there upon three passengers. Funereal in their silence, there are two women and a man. One of the two women holds an infant. A small wedge of light lies across the infant's face, makes blue-black gems of its eyes. The infant is not disturbed by the light, neither closes its eyes to it nor looks away but keeps its gaze, steady and thoughtful, upon the woman who sits on the tufted gray divan across from it, her head turned to face the window. Sullen, aloof, a black-liveried chauffeur drives more slowly than he might. The only sound is the pft, pft, pft of tires rolling over asphalt.
I wish she would keep the creature covered. Why has she taken off its bonnet? Undone all the swaddling when we're so close to the convent? We must be coming upon it. I won't ask Jean-Pierre another time how much longer? How much longer? My neck hurts from twisting it to look away from the creature for all these hours. I can't help but see now how she's grown. I've not really looked at her since the night she was born. What possessed me to ask the nurse to bring her to me then? I'd forbidden Andzelika to see her, and yet I called for her. Seeing her was like seeing Andzelika for the first time. I reached out for her just as I'd reached for my daughter. My arms ached for her as though she were mine. She is mine. I must think of her that way. She is mine and it is I who have chosen not to keep her. Andzelika is seventeen. An unripe seventeen who mourns the boy and cares nothing for the child. Her maternal impulse benumbed, it's as though she carried it and bore it only for him. A dubious gift for he who'd run so fast and far from her. Cunning. Like all his tribe. Of all the boys and men to whom Andzelika might have given herself, why to him? What is this viperous pull between his family and mine? Were not two deaths enough to extinguish it? If only I'd understood on that first evening who he was. Fierce black eyes, fine white hand raking the great shock of his glossy hair. A bolshevik's scorn in the depth of his bow. I can hear Stas saying, "Ciotka Valeska, Aunt Valeska, may I present my friend from the academy, Piotr Droutskoy." Yes, yes, welcome. Of course, be welcome. Your name means nothing, you mean nothing. Another knight-errant, are you? Or a blue-blooded cavalier of slender means? Yes, you'll round out the table nicely for a fortnight. I might have shot him right there in the courtyard in the fickle light of the torchières. Had I understood. Rather I welcomed him. Stas's chum. Yes, yes, please do stay. Adam scurried to take their things up to the third floor. And then he took Andzelika. The brother of Antoni's adored, whorish girl took my daughter. The brother of the enchanting baroness Urszula. Urszula. The wide Titian flanks of her twined about my husband even in death. How many nights had they slept like that? Antoni's hunting expeditions, his business in Prague, in Vienna. Visits to the farms, the villages. Always with her. Always with Urszula. Two bursts from a pistol so they could sleep like that forever. Will I never be free from the sight of her, of them?
Toussaint stood behind me as I looked from the doorway that morning, his hands iron grips upon my shoulders. What was it that he whispered then? "Even Rudolf and his baroness had the decency to cover themselves." Toussaint moved in front of me then, bent to retrieve Antoni's kontusz from the marble flags of the floor where it had been flung. How he'd loved that coat, symbol of his sympathy for the peasants. He'd push the split sleeves high above those of his shirt or his leather jacket and strut about, the breeze inflating the long fullness of it as he went. Toussaint covered them with the coat, the right shroud for a good szlachta and his beloved. I can still remember when I was his beloved.
Was it I who began the treachery? Would you have stayed faithful to me, Antoni, if I had not? Cuckolding the glorious count Czartoryski and so soon after our marriage, I was scandalous, arrogant. I would be the first between us to flash horns. Still, you were more clever than I, setting me up for it. You even put the Frenchman on your payroll for a bit, didn't you? Instructed him on approach, orchestrated the rendezvous, bought the gifts he gave to me. Yes, scandalous and arrogant, a perfect pigeon I was. Once I'd fallen you were freed for a married life of noble vendetta without noise from your soiled, wealthy wife. Who could blame you? Nimble as you were, easy as I was, the truth is that ours was nothing less than classic comportment among our kind, where the notion of fidelity has long been a fantastical diversion, a scherzo played in private and, at least as often, in public. Neither better nor worse than the others, we would have lived on that way, grown old that way, and passed on the tortured legacy of us to Andzelika as though it were a poem. That's how we would have ended. But you fell in love, Antoni.
Andzelika was two years old when you murdered your whore then put the pistol to your cheek, pulled the trigger inside your own beautiful mouth. Did you think of Andzelika, did you consider her? Your family did, yours and mine, as did kith and kin from the farthest edges of our lines. I found it strange how little mourning there was for you, how their grief was all for us, for Andzelika and me. "Poor angels," they called us. "We'll take care of you, stay close to you, protect you." Balm. And from that consolation came resolve. A double resolve. First, I would protect our daughter, my daughter. Yes, I would raise her in luxury, but I would not squander her then to the debauchery of our class. Second, I would become a better woman than I ever would have been had you lived. And that I did, Antoni. I am indeed finer without you. But in my tender mindfulness of Andzelika, in my, my-shall we call it vigilance-over her, I failed. When, only days after his arrival, she told me-in that same half-whispered whiskey voice with which she'd uttered even her first words, do you remember how we'd laugh that such a voice could come out of that tiny flower of a girl-that she had fallen in love with Droutskoy, I looked into the grave, weepy black plums of her eyes and I smiled, told her, as though her sentiments were an illness, that the feeling would pass. Did she recall her "love" for the violin master and then for the ravishing blond boy who'd worked in the kitchens last summer? I was insensible to the eloquence of her sixteen-year-old's delicate, coltish beauty, to its power to goad, to delight a boy who would be a man. Yes, insensible, too, to the violence, the wonder of passion. First passion. Hers, his. I held Andzelika to me, Antoni, and kissed her forehead, promised a week or two at Baden-Baden or would she prefer Merano? Yes, Merano and then a few days in Venice, how would Mummy's darling girl like that? Good night, darling girl. Good night, matka. He found his way to her bed or she to his. For all those weeks, or was it just once? I've never asked her. One morning he was gone. Not even Stas knew where.
Toussaint found him easily enough, his inquiries illuminating the boy's parentage. Hideous parentage. Did he know? Did the boy know who we were? Had he been sent by his family to vindicate the fleshly little wench who was his sister? Schadenfreude. Is that what brought him to us?
It's nearly over now. The boy is gone, Toussaint saw to that. And now with the creature soon to be gone, Andzelika will go on with her life. Andzelika and I will go on, uninjured. As though it never happened. As though they never happened, neither the boy nor the creature. No trace. No trace at all of this Droutskoy bastard. Andzelika will know nothing, nothing at all of what I have done, what I shall do today. From your hellish place, can you understand why?
Still averting her gaze from the infant, the woman, exhausted by her reverie, rests her thin shoulders against the divan, head tilted back. In supplication? She closes her eyes, and they move under the nearly transparent lids as if she were dreaming. She feels the infant's gaze.
For what I have done, for what I shall do today, forgive me, Andzelika. How indifferent you have been to anything but news of the boy. I'd thought she would fight to see her child, to hold her child, yet she stays rapt in her besotted illusion. She waits for him. In these past five months since its birth, she has made no more than trifling demands about it. Once she asked (as though he were due on the evening train from Warsaw and we two were in the glad habit of speaking about the baby and about him), "Do you think Piotr will be pleased with her, Mother?" I looked down to finger the mass of dark red peonies lying in the basket hung over my arm.
Andzelika trusts me to care for the child. When we left Krakow nearly two weeks ago, I told her I was taking it from the hospital where it was born and where it had remained-too weak to be moved, I'd said-to a clinic in Switzerland. To save it. Surgery for its imperfect heart. It's true about the infant's heart. The greater truth is that I have decided against surgery. Against saving it. Rather I shall save my daughter. In any case, its survival beyond its first year, even with intervention, is improbable, say the doctors. So be it. God's will be done. No credentialed orphanage would have it. Despite all Toussaint's gilded offers to see to the disposal of the creature through private and reputable adoption channels, there were no takers. And into unscrupulous hands I would never place her. I can hide her, deny her, leave her to the Fates but never to the blackguards.
The woman abruptly opens her eyes, jerks her head forward.
Ah, let me look at you, let me dare to look at you. How beautiful you are. My long fingers. Andzelika's long fingers. Her eyes. How you stare at me. Ah, a smile? Is that a smile for your babcia? Not even your smile will loosen my resolve. Such incubus would have been saved if only Andzelika had accepted the procedure. Swift, private. But I had to acquiesce. So fragile, Andzelika. But why, why have I gone to such trouble over this tiny damaged thing? The machinations, the endless signing of checks, the strangling doubts, a sea voyage, days of this fiendish hush among us in this automobile. I'll stare right back at you, you beautiful little beast. There, how do you like it? You see, there is no chink in my armor against you. No chink. A small chink. Too small. Do you think you know me? You shall never know me.Chapter Two
The thirteenth-century convent of st.-hilaire and its prestigious adjunct boarding school for les jeunes filles de la noblesse are situated above a small village in southwestern France, scant kilometers from the city of Montpellier on the river Lez. Though the convent offers no official asylum for orphans or abandoned children, more than once a swaddled infant has been left near its doors in a basket, in a wooden fruit crate with nearly legible notes pinned to its wrappings, a few francs folded in newsprint tucked inside. The good sisters would then set about to place the child. A few days, a few weeks it wanted, the baby barely interrupting the hushed strides of their anchoritic life of work, prayer, and meditation. Yet this afternoon an infant will be delivered to the care of the good sisters in a very different manner.
The Packard moves through the great iron gates, stops under the portico of the front entrance to the convent. The chauffeur steps out quickly to open the door to a robust uniformed nurse, who holds the infant, its layers of white and rose-colored robes spilling richly onto the folds of her dark blue cape. From the auto then steps a tall, lean man, smoothing the breast of a long, velvet-collared coat, adjusting his homburg, running his gloved hands over his thin white mustaches. Finally, another woman descends from the auto. This one is perhaps forty, her egregious beauty still fresh save the darkness around her large, soft black eyes, eyes like those of a deer, and the triste clench of chastely rouged lips. She wears a short silver fox jacket over a gray faille suit, a cloche she's pulled low to her brow. She is Contessa Valeska Czartoryska.
The countess takes the chauffeur's arm, and they proceed ahead of the others. The doors under the ivied portico open before the bell is pulled and by a shuffling hunchback priest in a soutane mutilated by greedily snuffed suppers the party is led quickly inside. The priest leads the nurse and her charge directly from the receiving room through double white-enameled doors, which he closes behind them without a sound.
An old nun appears, the starched white wings of her headdress juddering as she walks, the wimple pressing into the flaccid flesh of her face. Saying nothing, she nods, leads the countess-who is still holding the arm of the chauffeur-into the temperate discomfort of the drawing room. The man in the homburg follows. The countess and the old nun sit across from one another. The man, homburg in one hand, the other pulling more violently at his white mustaches, sits somewhat distant from them. The chauffeur withdraws. There have been no introductions. Though the countess knows very well the status and character of the old nun, who is called Mater Paul, the nun knows nothing of the countess. Not her name, her title, her nationality.
The countess begins to speak and, as she does, the man with the homburg translates her words into French-softly, and with great facility-for the benefit of the old nun.
"I won't take too much of your time, Mater Paul. I believe that you understand my exigency. And also what I'm willing to pay for that exigency to be carried out. I trust the curia has instructed you sufficiently."
"I understand, madame. I understand very well."
The man translates for the countess, though she hardly waits for him to finish before she speaks again. As though she has no need of him, as though his service is a fool's errand. Still, they keep to the game.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Amandine by Marlena de Blasi. Copyright © 2010 by Marlena de Blasi. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.