General Fiction posted October 10, 2018 Chapters:  ...15 16 -17- 18... 

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Chapter 17: Some questions are answered, but others remain.

A chapter in the book The French Letter

Alain Gaudin

by tfawcus

Helen and Charles continue on their quest to unravel the mystery of Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin's letter. Today, they meet Alain Gaudin, a gardener at Giverny, who obviously knows more than he tells.
From Chapter 16:
Two or three of the paths were roped off, where gardeners were busy weeding and pruning, but we saw no sign of Alain among them. It took us an hour or more to follow the crowd as it drifted onto the paths surrounding the lily ponds, and to squeeze through narrow doorways as we went from room to room through the house.

We had almost finished the tour and given up hope of finding him when, from a window in one of the bedrooms, I saw a figure on a stepladder, pruning and tying back a climbing rose that was rampant, a shocking riot of yellow along the back wall of the garden. I nudged Helen and pointed. There was an unmistakable streak of white in the man's hair.

Chapter 17

Anxious not to lose sight of him, I grabbed hold of Helen's hand and tried to push past the throng of tourists on the staircase. Muttered apologies of 'Excusez-moi' and 'Pardon' were met with angry looks and grumbling, as people moved this way and that to let us pass.

I imagine that those who were outside must have wondered what these two fleeing fugitives were making off with, as we raced down the garden path. I half expected there to be shouts of 'Stop, thief!'

We were out of breath when we arrived at the foot of the ladder, and I blurted out, "Hello there - are you Alain Gaudin, by any chance?"

"Who wants to know?" the gardener growled.

"I do," Helen replied, as she swept the hair back from her face. Her cheeks were flushed pink, and her breasts still heaved prettily from the exertion.

Alain's sour demeanour softened. He thrust his secateurs into the pocket of his apron, and climbed carefully down.

"So - what do you want?"

"To compliment you on your fine work, of course." Helen smiled at him provocatively. "There, at one end of the trellis, you have a wild rose, rampant and running in all directions, and here it is tamed, tucked in, its wildness cut away, and its blossoms peeping demurely from between the leaves. Do you have the same effect on your women?"

I wasn't sure if his grudging response was one of embarrassment, or appreciation of the compliment. "I like things to be neat and well-ordered. In a garden, that's possible."

"But not always in life," I remarked.

He ignored me and turned to Helen with a leer. "Yes, I am Alain Gaudin. At your service, mademoiselle."

"Alain of Françoise? ...and loving son of Estelle, late of Versailles?"

Alain's expression froze. He stared at Helen with suspicion. "Who are you? What do you want?"

"Just to talk to you about your family," I said. "We have something that might interest you." I withdrew the envelope from my pocket and showed it to him. "Do you know who this is?"

The man paled as he studied the writing and the postmark. "Yes," he said. "Suzanne Gaudin was my grandmother. Where did you get this?" There was the tension of a coiled spring in his voice. He almost hissed his question the second time. "Who gave you this envelope?"

I prised the fragile paper from his hand, and replaced it in my coat. "Perhaps it is soon time for your lunch break? There is a café down past the main gate. We could talk about it there, over a glass of wine, if you like."

He hesitated before saying, "Alright then, but I have to finish this first. I'll meet you in half an hour. Pierre's house wine is good enough, and you can shout me a steak sandwich into the bargain."

"Of course! Our pleasure," I said, taking Helen's hand again.

She gave him a surreptitious wave as we moved off. "See you soon then, Alain."

I smiled. "What a flirt you are!"

"Yes - but it worked, didn't it?"

As we made our way towards the exit, the peace was shattered by a car backfiring in the street. Three crows in a nearby stand of pine trees took flight, cawing like a coven of witches disturbed from their cauldrons. They wheeled on ungainly wings, casting a fell shadow across the sun as they flapped away into the distance.

Unnerved, I turned back to calm myself with one last look at the gardens, and saw two men in dark suits talking with Alain. My heart missed a beat.

"Look!" I said. "There they are again."

Helen made no reply but, taking my arm, she steered me towards the gate. I could see she, too, was shaken.

The café had a row of tables alongside the gravel path leading to its entrance. Two women in floral hats were sitting at one of the tables. They looked up briefly as we went past, then continued their conversation, sotto voce.

We chose a table further down, shaded by an umbrella advertising Campari. It overlooked an herbaceous border filled with blue delphiniums and pink phlox. Bees hovered among the low-growing lavender and salvias, and a pair of wood pigeons cooed in the trees behind us, completing the aura of lazy tranquillity. What a contrast it was to the racing of our minds!

We sat there for about twenty minutes, speculating on the recent events. When Alain arrived, he was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. I poured him some wine from the carafe, and he sat down - next to Helen. He drained his glass without comment, then his eyes bored through me like a pin through a beetle. "Show me that envelope again."

I passed it across the table and refilled his glass. He studied it briefly before drawing a coarse canvas wallet from his trouser pocket. He folded the envelope in half and started to put it away.

"I say! You can't do that. The envelope is mine."

"No, monsieur. It belongs to me. That is the handwriting of Colonel Neville Arnoux. I would recognise it anywhere ...and 1903 ...that was the year he took my grandmother to Paris to be his mistress. He was a young man then, and infatuated with her. I still have his lousy letter, enticing her with his vain promises."

He took another deep swig and grasped the neck of the carafe, angrily splashing more wine into his glass. I was not inclined to argue.

Helen placed her hand on his arm. "What happened next?"

"He set her up in a squalid garret in Montmartre, near where her sister was living, and used to visit her after his wild revels at The Moulin Rouge and in the nearby bars."

"She had a sister?"

"Yes, Carmen ...much older than her. She had been living there for years as a prostitute, and sometimes used to model for the painters. It wasn't long before my grandmother, Suzanne, was caught up in the same game. How else was a girl to live in those days?"

"As a laundress, perhaps?"

Alain scowled at me. "Yes, that too. You obviously know of the painting." He paused. "It should have been mine!" Now with a dangerous glint in his eye, he thumped his fist on the table, overturning one of the glasses. The two ladies in floral hats swept up their belongings and departed, casting furtive glances behind them as they hurried away.

"Calm down, man!" I said.

"Yes, Alain ...take it easy. You can't afford to make a scene here."

At that moment, our waiter came out with the food. "Hello, Alain, old friend! What brings you to my café today, hobnobbing with the tourists?"

He set the steak sandwich down in front of his friend, who grunted and sank his teeth into it. I could see that he was in no mood to continue his story.

Helen watched in fascination, as one might view a ravening wolf. "Who were those men who were with you just after we left?"

Alain finished his last mouthful, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and shrugged his shoulders.

"How should I know?" he said. "They were asking questions about you."

With that, he pushed his chair back and strode off down the path without a word of thanks, back to the peaceful haven of his precious garden.

I drank the remainder of my wine, looking over the rim of the glass at Helen. "I suspect those poor roses are in for a hard time this afternoon."

"Come on," she said. "Let's go back to Paris."


Image reproduced under Creative Commons licence. Attribution:

Cast of Main Characters

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
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