Sunday, 27 April 2008
The Beautiful Child
Last year in Paris, as I walked around vaguely in the beautiful city I finally paused beside a church and began to examine my map in some detail. After a while it began to dawn on me that I ought to find out where I was by looking for a street sign. As I gazed upwards and turned I saw upon a rough wall beside the church a sign with the words 'Rue du Bel Enfant'. I was a little confused, surely it ought to be 'beau enfant'. But I shrugged my shoulders and assumed that the sign referred to the Christ child, being so close to a church.
After a while, I left the street and returned to my hotel, not far from a large apartment block built in the Art Nouveau style. I worked out where the Biblioteque Alexandre was and how to get to it before taking up my bag and walking there. I had come to Paris to research late 17th century French manuscripts. It may seem a little dull - a lot of my fellow students certainly thought so, but I had become fascinated and had been inspired by an original copy of Cyrano de Bergerac's book, Estates of the Moon. I settled myself in the library and began to make my notes in pencil referring to a handful of books.
A little later I became engrossed in a text by Jehan de Lanville and found in the middle of the manuscript, a beautifully handwritten text, a reference to 'Le Bel Enfant de la Cite...' I took the manuscript to the table and copied down the reference before returning it to it's box. The Biblioteque's collection was very well catalogued and I was able to find out what documents were where. However, they were not catalogued by references within the texts so it took me almost an hour before I came upon a finely written book. Again, the text was written by hand and I sat down to read and transcribe it. The transcription went as follows;
"July 14 - 1659.
The fevers have broken in the streets now and our children are well again. Mlle de Longhi went to church and has prayed that all the children may be saved by God's pleasure. So many of us went also, but for Mlle it was an especial point for she is with child. Some of the women in the street did not want to be seen in church with her, for she is unmarried, but we went together a few of us with her, for well we know how some men are. They lead a young girl astray and having seduced her they vanish like the dew in the morning.
Madame Duvalier remarked that Mlle would not be the first young woman to have been taken advantage of by a man, nor would she be the last. How many young women have been taken in by a gentleman's promises of love and marriage only to be abandoned once he has taken her prize of maidenhood? A little less than there are stars I believe.
Mlle de Longhi is of Italian parents and a charming young woman, always happy to help others in the street, tho' none of us have much, if truth be told. She never begrudged food or help or even a spare bed if it were necessary for those of us in our apartment building. So those few of us went with her to the church and Mme Duvalier even stood up to the priest when he remarked cruelly upon Mlle de Longhi.
"Judge not lest ye be judged, monsieur. Love your neighbour as you love yourself. If all the men in the world were as honest and honourable as yourself monsieur, Mlle would not be in so unlucky a position. Surely you can see that?" she asked him.
He grumbled but left us to our prayers and we embraced our friend. Ah, but we are merely a handful of old women. Nonetheless I say, we each of us blessed Mlle's unborn child as they say the Sleeping Beauty was once blessed by her fairy godmothers.
"Let the child always be loved and remembered, pardieu," Mme Laclos said, blessing the child.
"Let flowers spring up wherever the child walks," Mme Soulier added.
"Let the child be filled with beauty and grace," Mlle Florette said, placing her hand gently on Mlle's swollen belly.
"Let the child have a voice to enchant and a far-seeing eye," Mme d'Autan murmured gently.
"Let all the good things the child wishes for come to pass," I added finally.
So, having blessed the child we kissed the mother and helped her back home. A few days later, she went into labour and Mme Beaufort delivered Mlle of a fine baby boy. The child was quiet even after Mme had spanked him into life. He suckled gently and quietly as if he were thinking over things. He grew quickly and vigorously as if he were a well-watered plant. For a while nothing out of the ordinary happened. But certainly all who visited Mlle loved the little child. It was impossible not to for he was so charming and had such a lovely voice for one who was not yet able to speak.
When he uttered his first word it was 'Dieu', which charmed the whole street to hear of it. Even the priest of our little church was charmed by the little boy, even if he frowned on the mother. It was all quite lovely until the little mite learned to walk. I first learned of this when Mlle came downstairs to my apartment, her lovely face, pale with shock, her hair loose as her dress.
"I fiori, i fiori, Madame!" she exclaimed handing me the little boy.
"My dear Mlle," I asked her, "whatever is the matter? What are the fyorey?"
She sat down heavily and took a deep breath. I sat also, placing the little boy on my lap and kissing him.
"He is walking Madame and there are flowers wherever he walks," she stammered.
I confess I did not take her seriously at first. Of course I recalled our blessing him, but it was more in hope than expectation. None of us had believed in it; we hoped rather to cheer Mlle after the priest's grumbling. I put the little fellow down and guided him to his mama. He stood for a moment, swaying slightly before taking a few steps towards Mlle. As he did so, my bare wooden floorboards suddenly sprouted with flowers. Violets, primulas, gentians - even the little Marguerites followed him to his mama. My hand flew to my mouth and then to my heart.
"Is this the Christ child come again?" I asked quietly.
The little boy reached his hands up to his mama and she picked him up placing him on her knees, holding him close to her and murmuring to him the love she had. I told her to say nothing to anyone. Instead we would go to church together on Sunday and allow the little boy to walk the aisle of the church.
"They will believe him bewitched!" she said horrified.
I told her I did not believe the people would, for he charmed everyone. He was loved by everyone, filled with beauty and grace and flowers did spring up where he walked. The sound of his voice, tho' young and innocent filled all who heard it with calm. Mlle agreed with me doubtfully and went back upstairs, carrying the boy. I waited a while before quickly grabbing my shawl and hurrying out to my old friends. I confided to each of them what had happened and what was intended. They thought me mad, I admit - but I had seen it with my own eyes. When I returned later that day, the flowers on my floor still grew as strongly as ever. As if my wooden floor was a garden of sacred earth.
Sunday came and how I wish now that I had listened to Mlle. Yet two final blessings remained to him. The morning was bright, clear and cold that Sunday. I met Mlle de Longhi with her child; he was still a quiet little boy who looked up to his mother and said very little tho' he was watchful of what was around him. Mlle held him in her arms so that his feet should not touch the ground and would not put him down tho' he wanted to walk with her. She hushed him, kissed him and told him that he should walk into the church with her.
Mme Laclos, Mme Soulier, Mlle Florette and Mme d'Autan met us along the way. All of us made a fuss of the boy for he was so very beautiful a child. So quiet, so responsive and so well-mannered for one so little. At the door to the church we met with the Mlles Beauchamps, the finest gossips in our street. If there was any news of anything at all, these ladies knew it. They stoppped us and remarked first upon the boy and how beautiful he was. Then turning to the rest of us, Lucie Beauchamps murmured,
"Apparently Father Roger is not at church today at all. It seems there was a scandal back home and he was called home to the Archbishopric. Today, we have Abbe Anatole, sent by the bishop himself!"
"So good to have a brand new abbe all to ourselves." Mme d'Autan answered dryly.
"Ah well, Mme, perhaps you have not heard of Abbe Anatole. He is all heaven or hellfire you know. Indeed it's what he's famous for." Ariane Beauchamp told her.
The doors of the church were open and we waited in our little group for the people to enter. Among the last we entered and Mlle de Longhi put the child down by her side. He took her hand and we walked together along the aisle of the little church. Almost immediately somebody pointed out the flowers and declared it a miracle. Mon Dieu! Isn't every little child a miracle?
A trail of flowers, followed us along the aisle to the seats we reserved for ourselves. Mlle de Longhi sat at the end of the aisle with the angelic child on her lap. There was apparently nothing of his father in him, all of him seemed to be on his mother's side. Abbe Anatole had watched from the pulpit and seen only a trail of something and heard the chattering but vaguely. Now he descended from the pulpit and crossed to the pews. When he saw the flowers, his eyes widened. He enquired what had happened and like a fool I told him.
Like an even bigger fool, the abbe returned to the pulpit and asked the mother to stand. Mlle de Longhi did so.
"Madame, where is thy husband?" the abbe asked her.
Mlle blushed and lowered her head.
"Seducing some other poor girl, Seigneur. Mlle is not to blame for anything and the child is blessed by God." Mlle Florette answered clearly.
"Mademoiselle, remove yourself and the unclean child from this house of God!" the abbe thundered.
Mlle took up her child and in tears, fled the church. My friends and I followed her, when suddenly the flowers in the aisle faded, withered and died. From outside the church there was the sound of cries and pandemonium. Yes, pandemonium for it was as if all the devils of Hell had ascended to the street. A wagon with four runaway horses had thundered down the street and as Mlle left the church, both she and the beautiful child were killed outright beneath the hooves and the wheels of the horses and wagon.
I was furious, I admit it. I turned back to the church and gave the abbe a piece of my mind, for I held him entirely to blame for the two innocent deaths. That done, my friends and I bought Mlle a plot at the Cemetery of Pere Lachaise where she was buried. I never went back to church nor did any of my friends. Instead we kept God in our own hearts where perhaps He after all belongs. The following month, the name of the street was changed and Abbe Anatole was sent packing. Now in our Rue du Bel Enfant, Mme Laclos' blessing came true, for he was always remembered by us."
I took up my transcription and tucked it away in my notebook. The librarian came around and I said I should be back the following day. He nodded and took away all the old books and manuscripts and I headed out into the dull grey streets of the evening.