Poor Maman. See how she suffers, her face gaunt, glowing in the gloom. In her youth she was never ill. In Paris she was a beauty, but Paris has been taken from her. She has her own grand house on the rue Saint-Dominique, but my father is a cautious man and we are in exile in the country. My mother is in mourning for Paris, although sometimes you might imagine her a penitent. Has she sinned? Who would tell me if she had? Her clothes are both somber and loose-fitting as is appropriate for a religious woman. Her life is a kind of holy suffering existing on a plane above her disappointing child.
I also am sick, but it is in no sense the same. I am, as I often declare myself, a wretched beast.
Behold, the dreadful little creature—his head under a towel, engulfed in steam, and the good Bebe, who was as often my nurse as my tutor and confessor, sitting patiently at my side, his big hand on my narrow back while I gasped for life so long and hard that I would—still in the throes of crisis—fall asleep and wake with my nose scalded in the basin, my lungs like fish in a pail, grasping what they could.
After how many choking nights was I still awake to witness the pale light of dawn lifting the dew-wet poplar leaves from the inky waters of the night, to hear the cawing of the crows, the antic gargoyle torments of country life?
I knew I would be cured in Paris. In Paris I would be happy.
It was the Abbe de La Londe's contrary opinion that Paris was a pit of vile miasmas and that the country air was good for me. He should have had me at my Catullus and my Cicero but instead he would drag me, muskets at the ready, into what we called the Bottom Hundred where we would occupy ourselves shooting doves and thrush, and Bebe would play beater and groundsman and priest. "You're a splendid little marksman," Bebe would say, jogging to collect our plunder. "Quam sagaciter puer telum conicit!" I translated. He never learned I was shortsighted. I so wished to please him I shot things I could not see.
My mother would wish me to address him as vous and 'l'Abbe, but such was his character that he would be Bebe until the day he died.
I was a strange small creature for him to love. He was a strong and handsome man, with snow-white hair and shrewd eyes easily moved to sympathy. He had raised my father and now I trusted myself entire to him, his big liver-spotted hands, his patient manner, the smell of Virginian tobacco which stained the shoulder of his cassock, and filled me with the atoms of America twenty years before I breathed its air. "Come young man," he would say. "Come, it's a beautiful day—Decorus est dies." And the hail would be likely flailing your back raw and he would marvel, not at the cruel pummeling, but at the miracle of ice. Or if not the ice, then the wind—blowing so violently it seemed the North Sea itself was pushing up the Seine and would wash away the wall that separated the river from the bain.
The meek would not swim, but Bebe made sure I was not meek. He would be splashing in the deep end of the bain, naked as a broken statue—"Come on Great Olivier."
If I became—against all that God intended for me—a powerful swimmer, it was not because of the damaging teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but because of this good priest and my desire to please him. I would do anything for him, even drown myself. It was because of him that I was continually drawn away from the awful atmosphere of my childhood home, and if I spent too many nights in the company of doctors and leeches, I knew, in spite of myself, the sensual pleasures of the seasons, the good red dirt drying out my tender hands.
We Hear You!