This story presented itself to me when I was researchin the life of Alphonsine, the mysterious second wife of John Bowes, founder of the Bowes Museum in County Durham.
You ask how I met him? That you need this for your book? Well, it started very early mademoiselle.
My father used to draw me as a child. He sketched my chubby feet. He outlined my roly-poly body and filled me in with pastel, rubbed hard - red, white and ochre with green in the creases. Alas it was a losing battle. The body was that of a baby but the emerging face always looked far too old. Those works remained hidden from public sight.
His sculpture of me was more pleasing. I was too young to remember the process but I swear I can remember the feel of his hand, embedded with pastel, cupping my skull, my shoulder, the rough edge of his finger running down my cheek. I could smell the fruity aroma of his cigar as his hand moved away to cup the skull of my unfinished surrogate, carved in three-years-buried cherry wood, on the stand that moved around like a carousel.
My mother, who had frequently been his model, always tells me I was far too young to remember all this. But I do recall it, I swear, as a kind of shadow of a memory. I now understand that this was an early expression of her jealousy, which showed itself more vividly in slaps and pinches that only stopped when I was twelve years old and became taller than her.
In later days, viewing them in retrospect, I forgave her the slaps, because by then I knew my father was shoddy in the way he treated her. On instance of this was the night when he was onto his second bottle of claret, after a meal of stewed beef cooked to perfection by our maid Amalie. He started to tease her about the way they met: how he picked her up from the gutter and saved her from a terrible fate. ‘What gutter would how you now, my dearest? Fat as butter and all lopsided.’
My mother was beautiful on her left hand side but drooping and stiff on her right, from a falling-attack she suffered on the train returning to the country from
That night at the dinner table my mother frowned at him and nodded to Amalie for her to clear the table. Then she turned on my father, alight with rage her good eye burning with anger. ‘You know well August, it was no gutter. It was a very fine ballroom.’
He raised his glass to her. ‘And at that very fine ball, I - like every gallant gentleman there - was wearing a mask, in disguise in the world into which we had lowered ourselves.’
She put up a hand, interrupting. ‘That was the custom, August. You know that.’
He smiled sweetly and went on. ‘But you, ma cherie, were totally bare-faced. Your beautiful face was there for all to see.’
She picked up her glass, hauled herself to her feet, threw her wine over him, and stalked from the room. The wine dripped off the forest of his brows, the stalky meadowland of his cheeks.
Amalie stacked the dishes on trolley by the buffet, her face blank. My father mopped his face with his green napkin and glanced up at her. ‘Tell the little Abeille about those fine balls, Amelie, where we wiled away our youth.’
He always called me Abeille, our French word for bee, mademoiselle. He gave me that name when I was three. He always said my true name – Alphonsine - was far too grand for a little creature who perpetually buzzed around with questions and other pricking annoyances.
That night from the buffet Amalie smiled at me, her eyes glinting. ‘Those balls were the meat markets of the demi-monde, ma petite, where gentlemen came to sample tender morsels of female flesh. Naturally these gentlemen wore masks to protect their respectability. The rule was that the ladies must not wear masks. Some bold women even left off their stays to show their availability.’
She leaned back against the buffet. The words streamed from her in her usual upside-down fashion, her guttural tone using the right words with the wrong emphasis. Amalie was from the deep south where they spoke a different language altogether.
She went on. ‘Many women at the balls dressed to show their price. Some ladies wore diamonds filched from the ugly wives of their lovers and dresses of silk brought all the way from
Your Mama and her friend Josephine certainly wore silk dresses from the finest
dressmakers in China .
I have to tell you, Alphonsine, that the most beautiful of bare-faced women
attended the balls. Some of these had escaped the servitude of the brothels
through the power of their protectors. Some were actresses trying to sidestep
the dark road to prostitution …’ Paris
My father, waving his half full glass, interrupted here. ‘As was your dear beautiful mother ma p’tite Abeille. Her good friend Josephine also.
Amalie put a hand on my shoulder and I stood up before her. ‘And M’selle Josephine was not so beautiful, ma p’tite. But she was truly elegant, and a good actress. I knew about that. Hadn’t I been her dresser in the Theatre de Varietés? Your mother too came from the theatre. And her sheer beauty drew great applause.’
My father giggled then. ‘But unfortunately unlike Josephine she could never remember a line. Not a single line! The manager who had been intoxicated with her became embarrassed and afterwards employed women with more brain and better memories. Her friend Josephine was one of these.’
Amalie suddenly scowled at him. ‘But after all, Monsieur August, when you met her, you fell in love with madame.’
He sighed very deeply. ‘So I did, Amalie. So I did.’ And with that he laid his head on the stout oak table and fell asleep, snoring and snuffling within minutes.
My gaze met Amalie’s and - both of us embarrassed and amused - we started to laugh. She hugged me tight and I could smell the meat and garlic on her. And my father’s fruity cigarettes. Still laughing, I helped Amalie to trundle the trolley through to the dark back-places of the house, where her two nieces, who couldn’t speak French at all, just the guttural language of the South, washed the pots and dishes and cleared the kitchen for the following day.
Amalie spoke to them in their language which was somehow all in the throat and I understood that I was outside their world. I turned towards the big black door to return to my side of the world and Amalie called after me. ‘Not so sad, little one! Tomorrow will be a fine day. Your mother’s friend M’selle Josephine will be here with her fine Englishman. They say he has bought her a theatre for herself. Now she is to be an English lady.’
Mademoiselle Josephine was a great friend of my mother. There was never a time when she was not a welcome visitor to our little house out in the country, not far from the railway terminus. My mother visited Josephine often in
she had a thriving salon. It was as she returned from one of these visits that
she had the disfiguring accident. This meant she never returned to our
beautiful city of Paris which
had been the setting for the brightest days of her life. Paris
When Mademoiselle Josephine visited us she spent most of her time either sitting for my father or closeted away drinking pink wine with my mother. But every time she came she would bring a present for me. Sometimes it was clothes, all elaborately embroidered – always too small. Then there was the miniature umbrella with a solid silver handle. The set of child-sized silver cutlery. A music box in fine painted china. I have them still. I will show them to you, Mademoiselle later.
Unlike my mama, Josephine was not a great beauty. She was prettier, cleverer, more refined and delicate than my mother. And, according to Amalie, a very good actress. She was kind, too. After my mother’s accident she visited us in the country at least once in each month, bringing to my mother and father her sparkling tales of the capital. And she told stories of the great treasures she had found in the sales in great houses of the capital of families selling up after the war of 1870. There were great pickings there, mademoiselle and she was a great collector.
She certainly brought the best out of my parents. When he knew she was to visit my father would bath, comb his beard and wear his best red velvet jacket. He showed her his latest sculpture and talked of promising commissions. My mother also dressed for the occasion, her outfit always included a shallow brimmed hat with a heavy veil to one side. When Mademoiselle Josephine had paid sufficient attention to my father she and my mother would retire to my mother’s boudoir and drink tisane from china cups. And then the pink wine.
Listening from outside the door I would hear their soft, confidential tones, their intimate, tinkling laughter and vowed that I too would have such a friend when I grew up.
More than once Amalie would haul me by the ear away from my eavesdropping and drag me to the kitchen, where she would shout at me and feed me sweetmeats.
I was twelve that when Mademoiselle Josephine visited us with the grand Englishman. Amalie as always was on edge: but today she was uncharacteristically bad tempered. It took me some years to realize that this was caused by her jealousy. But I was never clear whether it was jealousy of mama’s friendship with Josephine, or jealousy that Josephine still enjoyed the excitement of
while Amalie, like her mistress, was exiled to the house of an artist in the
When I myself finally reached
savoured its excitement I sympathised with Amalie in retrospect. After all, it
was not she who had fallen in love with the artist and built a life there in
the country which comprised in equal parts of art, passionate love and
passionate hate. Paris
On the day of this special visit of Mademoiselle Josephine and her Englishman the house was polished to perfection by Amalie and her nieces. While the nieces baked bread and cakes I gathered flowers from the meadow, stuffed them into clay jugs and put them on every windowsill. My mother, closeted in her bedroom considering and rejecting gowns and hats, called on Amalie’s judgment.
To collect our guests from the station my father hired a horse and chaise from
an acquaintance of Amalie. Leon brought
the rig first to the door for my father to inspect. It was well sprung,
polished to a high shine and sitting on high wheels. For myself I thought
it was rather small for two people. There was not even enough room for Leon .
He had to sit on the horse to guide it. And to get out the passengers would
have to alight from the only front door and duck under the shafts. How would
they manage that? I wondered. Leon
horse was gleaming and well turned out and Leon himself was smart in his dark
green coat and hunting cap. My father was satisfied. Leon
We waited what seemed like a whole day before the elegant rig turned the corner, came through the double gates and drew to a halt before us.
down and held the horse’s head. Mademoiselle Josephine made a joke of alighting
from the rig, ducking gracefully under the shafts and laughing as her companion
climbed over them. We stood watching – my father in his red smoking jacket, my mother
elegant in green organdie with yellow hat, Amalie and her nieces smart in their
black dresses topped with white organdie aprons. And I wore my pale blue linen with its tucked bodice. Leon
Our visitors stood up straight. Josephine smoothed her skirt and the Englishman removed his top hat. We all looked avidly at Josephine’s Englishman. Then my father nodded. Amalie, the nieces and I bobbed a curtsey. My mother moved forward to embrace her friend and be introduced to the Englishman who kissed her hand in a truly elegant fashion.
As he talked with my father, making comments about the beauty of the house and the elegance of the garden, I examined the Englishman from head to foot. He was grave and quite ordinary. A little – but not much – taller than Josephine. He was oddly proportioned: his head slightly large for the size of his body. His hair was thick and dark, smoothed to one side. His skin was pale in the English style. It was only when my mother introduced me – ‘And here is our dear Alphonsine…’ - that I noticed his eyes. They were bright, kind and wary all at once. They were pleading and exulting at the same time. It would take a lifetime to know what those eyes really said to me.
‘Ah Alphonsine!’ Now his eyes lost their complexity. They twinkled with kindness making me beam up at him. ‘Josephine tells me you are really called l’Abeille.’ His French was perfect, much better than Amalie’s. He reached into an inside pocket. ‘I have something for you.’
Now, on the palm of his hand lay a tiny bee, fat with yellow gold and striped in rubies and diamonds. He touched something with the edge of his little finger and filigree wings whirred, raised and fell in a facsimile of flight.
I gasped with delight at this wonderful object. Behind me Amalie and her nieces laughed and applauded.
‘For me?’ I looked up into the twinkling eyes.
He nodded. ‘For you, child. A little bee for a little bee.’
And that, Mademoiselle was how I met Josephine’s Englishman - later my Englishman – and knew my fate was sealed.
John Bowes: Josephine's Englishman