The boulevard du Cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens. The wagons that rolled in from Lille and Arras to the north drove directly into the tanneries and mills of the Saint Leu quarter without needing to use this rutted, leafy road. The town side of the boulevard backed on to substantial gardens, which were squared off and apportioned with civic precision to the houses they adjoined. On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilacs, and willows, cultivated to give shade and quietness to their owners. The gardens had a wild, overgrown look and their deep lawns and bursting hedges could conceal small clearings, quiet pools, and areas unvisited even by the inhabitants, where patches of grass and wild flowers lay beneath the branches of overhanging trees.
Behind the gardens the river Somme broke up into small canals that were the picturesque feature of Saint Leu; on the other side of the boulevard these had been made into a series of water gardens, little islands of damp fertility divided by the channels of the split river. Long, flat-bottomed boats propelled by poles took the town dwellers through the waterways on Sunday afternoons. All along the river and its streams sat fishermen, slumped on their rods; in hats and coats beneath the cathedral and in shirtsleeves by the banks of the water gardens, they dipped their lines in search of trout or carp.
The Azaires' house showed a strong, formal front toward the road from behind iron railings. The traffic looping down to the river would have been in no doubt that this was the property of a substantial man. The slate roof plunged in conflicting angles to cover the irregular shape of the house. Beneath one of them a dormer window looked out on to the boulevard. The first floor was dominated by a stone balcony, over whose balustrades the red ivy had crept on its way up to the roof. There was a formidable front door with iron facings on the timber.
Inside, the house was both smaller and larger than it looked. It had no rooms of intimidating grandeur, no gilt ballrooms with dripping chandeliers, yet it had unexpected spaces and corridors that disclosed new corners with steps down into the gardens; there were small salons equipped with writing desks and tapestry-covered chairs that opened inward from unregarded passageways. Even from the end of the lawn, it was difficult to see how the rooms and corridors were fitted into the placid rectangles of stone. Throughout the building the floors made distinctive sounds beneath the press of feet, so that with its closed angles and echoing air, the house was always a place of unseen footsteps.
Stephen Wraysford's metal trunk had been sent ahead and was waiting at the foot of the bed. He unpacked his clothes and hung his spare suit in the giant carved wardrobe. There was an enamel wash bowl and wooden towel rail beneath the window. He had to stand on tiptoe to look out over the boulevard, where a cab was waiting on the other side of the street, the horse shaking its harness and reaching up its neck to nibble at the branches of a lime tree. He tested the resilience of the bed, then lay down on it, resting his head on the concealed bolster. The room was simple but had been decorated with some care. There was a vase of wild flowers on the table and two prints of street scenes in Honfleur on either side of the door.
It was a spring evening, with a late sun in the sky beyond the cathedral and the sound of blackbirds from either side of the house. Stephen washed perfunctorily and tried to flatten his black hair in the small mirror. He placed half a dozen cigarettes in a metal case that he tucked inside his jacket. He emptied his pockets of items he no longer needed: railway tickets, a blue leather notebook, and a knife with a single, scrupulously sharpened blade.
He went downstairs to dinner, startled by the sound of his steps on the two staircases that took him to the landing of the first floor and the family bedrooms, and thence down to the hall. He felt hot beneath his waistcoat and jacket. He stood for a moment disorientated, unsure which of the four glass-panelled doors that opened off the hall was the one through which he was supposed to go. He half-opened one and found himself looking into a steam-filled kitchen in the middle of which a maid was loading plates on to a tray on a large deal table.
"This way, Monsieur. Dinner is served," said the maid, squeezing past him in the doorway.
In the dining room the family were already seated. Madame Azaire stood up.
"Ah, Monsieur, your seat is here."
Azaire muttered an introduction of which Stephen heard only the words "my wife." He took her hand and bowed his head briefly. Two children were staring at him from the other side of the table.
"Lisette," Madame Azaire said, gesturing to a girl of perhaps sixteen with dark hair in a ribbon, who smirked and held out her hand, "and Gr?goire." This was a boy of about ten, whose small head was barely visible above the table, beneath which he was swinging his legs vigorously backward and forward.
The maid hovered at Stephen's shoulder with a tureen of soup. Stephen lowered a ladleful of it into his plate and smelt the scent of some unfamiliar herb. Beneath the concentric rings of swirling green the soup was thickened with potato.
Azaire had already finished his and sat rapping his knife in a persistent rhythm against its silver rest. Stephen lifted searching eyes above the soup spoon as he sucked the liquid over his teeth.
"How old are you?" said the boy.
"It doesn't matter," said Stephen to Madame Azaire. "Twenty."
"Do you drink wine?" said Azaire, holding a bottle over Stephen's glass.
Azaire poured out an inch or two for Stephen and for his wife before returning the bottle to its place.
"So what do you know about textiles?" said Azaire. He was only forty years old but could have been ten years more. His body was of a kind that would neither harden nor sag with age. His eyes had an alert, humourless glare.
"A little," said Stephen. "I have worked in the business for nearly four years, though mostly dealing with financial matters. My employer wanted me to understand more of the manufacturing process."
The maid took away the soup plates and Azaire began to talk about the local industries and the difficulties he had had with his work force. He owned a factory in town and another a few miles outside.
"The organization of the men into their syndicates leaves me very little room for manoeuvre. They complain they are losing their jobs because we have introduced machinery, but if we cannot compete with our competitors in Spain and England, then we have no hope."
The maid brought in a dish of sliced meat in thin gravy that she placed in front of Madame Azaire. Lisette began to tell a story of her day at school. She tossed her head and giggled as she spoke. The story concerned a prank played by one girl on another, but Lisette's telling of it contained a second level. It was as though she recognized the childish nature of what she said and wanted to intimate to Stephen and her parents that she herself was too grown-up for such things. But where her own interests and tastes now lay she seemed unsure; she stammered a little before tailing off and turning to rebuke her brother for his laughter.
Stephen watched her as she spoke, his dark eyes scrutinizing her face. Azaire ignored his daughter as he helped himself to salad and passed the bowl to his wife. He ran a piece of bread round the rim of the plate where traces of gravy remained.
Madame Azaire had not fully engaged Stephen's eye. In return he avoided hers, as though waiting to be addressed, but within his peripheral view fell the sweep of her strawberry-chestnut hair, caught and held up off her face. She wore a white lace blouse with a dark red stone at the throat.
As they finished dinner there was a ring at the front door and they heard a hearty male voice in the hall.
Azaire smiled for the first time. "Good old B?rard. On the dot as usual!"
"Monsieur and Madame B?rard," said the maid as she opened the door.
"Good evening to you, Azaire. Madame, delighted." B?rard, a heavyset grey-haired man in his fifties, lowered his lips to Madame Azaire's hand. His wife, almost equally well built, though with thick hair wound up on top of her head, shook hands and kissed the children on the cheek.
"I am sorry, I didn't hear your name when Ren? introduced us," said B?rard to Stephen.
While Stephen repeated it and spelled it out for him, the children were dismissed and the B?rards installed in their place.
Azaire seemed rejuvenated by their arrival. "Brandy for you, B?rard? And for you, Madame, a little tisane, I think? Isabelle, ring for coffee also, please. Now then-"
"Before you go any further," said B?rard, holding up his fleshy hand, "I have some bad news. The dyers have called for a strike to begin tomorrow. The syndicate chiefs met the employers' representatives at five this evening and that is their decision."
Azaire snorted. "I thought the meeting was tomorrow."
"It was brought forward to today. I don't like to bring you bad tidings, my dear Ren?, but you would not have thanked me if you had learned it from your foreman tomorrow. At least I suppose it won't affect your factory immediately."
B?rard in fact appeared to have enjoyed delivering the news. His face expressed a quiet satisfaction at the importance it had conferred on him. Madame B?rard looked admiringly at her husband.
Azaire continued to curse the work force and to ask how they expected him to keep his factories going. Stephen and the women were reluctant to give an opinion and B?rard, having delivered the news, seemed to have no further contribution to make on the subject.
"So," he said, when Azaire had run on long enough, "a strike of dyers. There it is, there it is."
This conclusion was taken by all, including Azaire, as the termination of the subject.
"How did you travel?" said B?rard.
"By train," said Stephen, assuming he was being addressed. "It was a long journey."
"Aah, the trains," said B?rard. "What a system! We are a great junction here. Trains to Paris, to Lille, to Boulogne . . . Tell me, do you have trains in England?"
"Let me see . . . For about seventy years."
"But you have problems in England, I think."
"I'm not sure. I wasn't aware of any."
B?rard smiled happily as he drank his brandy. "So there it is. They have trains now in England."
The course of the conversation depended on B?rard; he took it as his burden to act as a conductor, to bring in the different voices, and then summarize what they had contributed.
"And in England you eat meat for breakfast every day," he said.
"I think most people do," said Stephen.
"Imagine, dear Madame Azaire, roast meat for breakfast every day!" B?rard invited his hostess to speak.
She declined, but murmured something about the need to open a window.
"Perhaps one day we shall do the same, eh Ren??"
"Oh, I doubt it, I doubt it," said Azaire. "Unless one day we have the London fog as well."
"Oh, and the rain." B?rard laughed. "It rains five days out of six in London, I believe." He looked toward Stephen again.
"I read in a newspaper that last year it rained a little less in London than in Paris, though-"
"Five days out of six," beamed B?rard. "Can you imagine?"
"Papa can't stand the rain," Madame B?rard told Stephen.
"And how have you passed this beautiful spring day, dear Madame?" said B?rard, again inviting a contribution from his hostess. This time he was successful, and Madame Azaire, out of politeness or enthusiasm, addressed him directly.
"This morning I was out doing some errands in the town. There was a window open in a house near the cathedral and someone was playing the piano." Madame Azaire's voice was cool and low. She spent some time describing what she had heard. "It was a beautiful thing," she concluded, "though just a few notes. I wanted to stop and knock on the door of the house and ask whoever was playing it what it was called."
Monsieur and Madame B?rard looked startled. It was evidently not the kind of thing they had expected. Azaire spoke with the soothing voice of one used to such fancies. "And what was the tune, my dear?"
I don't know. I had never heard it before. It was just a tune like . . . Beethoven or Chopin."
"I doubt it was Beethoven if you failed to recognize it, Madame," said B?rard gallantly. "It was one of those folksongs, I'll bet you anything."
"It didn't sound like that," said Madame Azaire.
"I can't bear these folk tunes you hear so much of these days," B?rard continued. "When I was a young man it was different. Of course, everything was different then." He laughed with wry self-recognition. "But give me a proper melody that's been written by one of our great composers any day. A song by Schubert or a nocturne by Chopin, something that will make the hairs of your head stand on end! The function of music is to liberate in the soul those feelings that normally we keep locked up in the heart. The great composers of the past were able to do this, but the musicians of today are satisfied with four notes in a line you can sell on a song-sheet at the street corner. Genius does not find its recognition quite as easily as that, my dear Madame Azaire!"
Stephen watched as Madame Azaire turned her head slowly so that her eyes met those of B?rard. He saw them open wider as they focused on his smiling face, on which small drops of perspiration stood out in the still air of the dining room. How on earth, he wondered, could she be the mother of the girl and boy who had been with them at dinner?
"I do think I should open that window," she said coldly, and stood up with a rustle of silk skirt.
"And you too are a musical man, Azaire?" said B?rard. "It's a good thing to have music in a household where there are children. Madame B?rard and I always encouraged our children in their singing."
Stephen's mind was racing as B?rard's voice went on and on. There was something magnificent about the way Madame Azaire turned this absurd man aside. He was only a small-town bully, it was true, but he was clearly used to having his own way.
Excerpted from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. Copyright © 1997 by Sebastian Faulks. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.