Although the Island had a wide variety of school systems, their terminology for grades and divisions was fairly consistent from country to country.
As is the case with schools in the U.S., Island schools had twelve regular graded divisions. The first six made up “primary’ school and the last six “secondary” schools, corresponding to U.S. grades 1-6 and 7-12 respectively. Only Verecunda had compulsory kindergarten at the time of The Ten Weeks. Islanders referred to their primary grades in the same way as U.S. public schools, but for the secondary schools they referred to the grades as “forms,” as is customary in many preparatory schools. Thus U.S. seventh grade was “Form I,” eighth “Form II,” and so on through twelfth, “Form VI.”
Secondary schools were further divided into Lower and Upper Division, Lower Division having Forms I-III and Upper Division Forms IV-VI. This division, however, was mostly applied to athletic teams and competition.
The reality was that most Island schools were “comprehensive,” namely that they contained both primary grades and secondary forms in one school. There were exceptions, such as the Cathedral of St. Thomas School in Serelia (a primary school.) It wasn’t until well after The Ten Weeks when schools were split up, and then only in Verecunda.
It took Madeleine longer than usual to get ready, but that was the beauty of Midnight Mass—no celebration of the sacred mysteries afforded the faithful more time to prepare during the day. As midnight approached, they made their way from the Evan Point area they lived in across Central Avenue to the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Even though Yule was now the rule in Verecunda, the municipal government continued to decorate for the season, although they stuck with Santas, candy canes and snowmen, the last of which Pierre always found odd in a sub-tropical place like this. Madeleine’s insistence upon going to confession had one important benefit: they were able to secure a parking place close to the entrance of the cathedral, which was especially useful to Madeleine in her current state.
The Sacred Heart Cathedral was the oldest Catholic church of any kind on the Island; the original structure dated back to the 1870’s, and the Cathedral was preparing for its centennial. It was rather small for a cathedral, and although quaint it had none of the architectural beauty of St. Sebastian’s over on Point Collina, which Lucian Gerland built in part to make up for the Cathedral’s shortcomings. Nevertheless the Cathedral had one unique adjacent feature: the Island’s only completely Catholic cemetery, which was the final resting place for many Catholics who came and laboured in a land which always looked at Roman Catholicism as an aberration in the general scheme of things.
Madeleine found the transition from deft handling of a tennis racquet to handling a cane easier on her physically than her pride, but going to the Cathedral meant that she saw few of her Catholic schoolmates, most of whom went to St. Sebastian’s. She managed to genuflect upon entry with her family and then made her way towards the confessional boxes, which had a reasonably short line. Behind her was Raymond, who knew he needed forgiveness—from God and his family—more than his sister did.
This evening she insisted upon wearing a veil on her head in the old Catholic tradition, even though this had been discarded by most of the women in the Cathedral. As she stood waiting for her turn in the box, Pierre turned to Yveline and said, “She looks just like you did when you were young and going to Mass.”
“Her dress is considerably shorter than mine was,” Yveline noted.
“Young men do have some advantages these days,” Pierre said. Her illness had obviously not dimmed her focus on outfit coordination, with her white dress and matching stockings and shoes which exuded a message somewhere between the angelic and the sensual. The way she carried herself, accentuated by the cane, tended to shift the scene towards the angelic.
The cane did help steady her through the entry, exit and kneeling of the confessional box, as it had on the steps that led into the Cathedral. She emerged shortly, followed even more shortly by Raymond (“He must have given the executive version,” Pierre dryly noted later.) They returned to their pews towards the back to join their parents, where they prayed as they waited for Mass to begin.
The Cathedral’s conduct of the Mass was about as eclectic of a business as Madeleine’s outfit. The Novus Ordo Missae had been introduced into the diocese earlier that year, and priest and lay person alike were settling into it. The Cathedral’s music was still traditional, unlike St. Sebastian’s which set forth as much of the new music from the mainland as it could get through customs. The Cathedral was at its best at Midnight Mass, but one got the impression that the exhortations of Vatican II for congregational participation in the liturgy had a long way to go to realisation.
That impression was driven home with the people’s hearty response to Bishop Santini’s announcement that the Mass was ended. But the usual stampede for the door was braked by the conflagration outside. The des Cieux were a little slower than usual thanks to Madeleine’s condition, but they managed to make their way around the edge of the crowd which had filled the narthex and spilled out into the street and ended up at the curb on First Avenue.
The focus of everyone’s attention was the large trash fire that was burning in the middle of the street. Obviously the subject of great care of its makers, it burned white and hot in the cool Christmas Eve night which had turned to Christmas Day.
The des Cieux ended up standing next to Father Moore, who attempted to compensate his short visit to Madeleine as she lay ill by standing next to her family admiring the bonfire before them.
“What is this? Why is there a fire in the street?” Moore asked.
“It is a Yule Fire,” Madeleine replied without emotion. “They have set it to remind us of what they want this holiday to be.”
“Yule Fire. . .isn’t it supposed to be a ‘Yule Log?’” Moore came back.
“It is the best this place can manage,” Pierre observed.
“Shouldn’t we call the police?” Moore asked.
“Why? This is not a hidden event. They know what is going on. They just don’t want to come,” Pierre stated.
“But that is their job,” Father Moore came back.
“Their job is to stay out of the CPL’s way,” Pierre said.
“The CPL is behind this?” Moore asked, surprised.
“You and Bishop Santini are slow learners,” Pierre sighed. With that the des Cieux turned away to find their car. As the fire started to go down, others did likewise to find that their cars were either stolen or vandalised. Now the frantic calls to the police began, and they duly arrived to go through the motions of taking the information so at least their insurance company would do something.
The 2CV was unharmed. “Papa, why do you think that they left our 2CV unhurt?” Madeleine asked as they puttered home.
“Maybe they didn’t think it was a car,” Raymond quipped.
Christmas Eve at the des Cieux residence started off with breakfast. The presence of all four members of the family was a sign that normality was returning. Madeleine was the last to come to the table. Still moving slowly, she eased herself into her seat and said grace as the rest of the family followed along. After this they started into the usual delicious feast that Yveline set before them.
“Is it possible for me to go to confession this evening before Midnight Mass?” Madeleine asked, breaking the rather trivial conversation that preceded it.
“You only went a couple of weeks ago,” Yveline observed. “You have been ill much of the time since. How is it possible for you to have committed mortal sin during that time?”
“I don’t know. . .I feel I need to,” Madeleine replied vaguely.
“It is her Baptist friend,” Raymond chimed in. “They have spent a lot of time together. Baptists believe that, once you have been ‘saved,’ to use their expression, that your state of grace cannot change, that you will go to heaven. It is far better than the opinions probables of the reverends pères jesuites. There is no telling what kind of influence she has been.”
“He is too proud of his term paper on Les Provinciales,” Madeleine sourly observed.
“Much too proud,” Yveline added. “All we have heard about since he has been home are Mohatra contracts and how you can defend your honour in a duel.”
“He has already tried the latter,” Pierre said. “I found out that he turned his aerosol deodorant into a flame thrower. But his aim wasn’t so good, and he singed the curtains in his dormitory room. He spent more time at detention than he has admitted.”
“Serves him right,” Madeleine added, giving her younger brother an imperious look. Raymond looked sheepish at this revelation; once again, his father’s connections had pierced his adolescent secrecy.
“I think that it is reasonable to say that Carla is much the janseniste. Were it otherwise, she would not be having the problems with the school that she has had.”
“Papa is right,” Madeleine agreed. “We played tennis the weekend after she was forbidden to stand for Student Council. She played rather poorly, then broke down in tears. It was very sad for her.”
“And she is a very faithful friend too,” Yveline observed. “I was shocked when she refused to leave Madeleine in the hospital. She has been very helpful to us.”
“So what about confession?” Madeleine interrupted.
“Are you able to go to Midnight Mass?” Yveline asked. “You are still very weak.”
“I must go,” Madeleine replied.
“Then you must use my grandfather’s cane,” Pierre insisted. “You are not steady enough on your feet, especially getting around the Cathedral. If you agree, we can go early for confession. Perhaps Raymond will feel the need for absolution after his semester at Alemara Academy.”
“Maybe,” Raymond said. “But why go early for confession? You do not commit mortal sin unless you arrive at Mass after the elevation of the host.”
Madeleine rolled her eyes in disgust. “Very well, Papa, I will use the cane. But, before I confess, I may use it for more than steadying my feet. My forehand was doing well before my illness.”
Raymond resumed his breakfast in silence.
Winter on the Island was always called “the dry season,” but this year was dryer than usual, and around 3ºC warmer too. As the morning progressed and the temperature passed through 18ºC, another very nice day was in the making at the Stanley Farm and Supply Store.
The store was located about halfway between Hallett and North Hallett, in the north of Uranus. As one drove up from the coast towards Hallett and, if one dared, towards Beran, the store came up along the left, across the road from the canal which was only separated from the road by about twenty metres. The store itself was a little below road level. A nondescript concrete block building, the store front was almost completely open when the roll-up doors were raised, revealing the smaller equipment and things that didn’t need to be out in the rain. The tractor lot was off to the side, and there was more equipment, supplies, feed and seed out in the back. Every square centimetre of the property was occupied by something, including the junk in the far back, and the property itself butted up against one of the farms it serviced, in this case owned by Carla’s uncle.
The Stanleys were blessed in that the year-round planting and harvest schedule of Uranan farming made for year-round business. But as Christmas was only two days away and most of the farmers were in a festive mood, most of the Stanleys’ sales and repairs were on an “emergency” basis.
Pete Stanley was leaning on the main counter, which was on the right side of the store as viewed from the road. Next to him was John Agelasos, his main “right-hand man” who was frequently the salesman that Pete wasn’t. The open roll-up doors on the front afforded as much breeze through the place as one could expect, especially when the back door was left up. This was supplemented by the spotty ceiling fans and, in very hot weather, by a floor fan or two. In an attempt to supplement Verecunda’s limited radio offerings, Pete had an 8-track player mounted on a high shelf, its speakers sharing the shelf. Country and Gospel music alternated, and even at this time of year the polyester suit boys’ muffled refrain echoed across the store, softly reverberating against the concrete block walls in such a way as to obscure the good news they had to offer.
Things were slow until a somewhat battered Ford Cortina pulled up in front of the counter. The Cortina has Uranan state licence plates on it and “Hallett Regional Comprehensive School” crudely stencilled on the two front doors of the car. A thin man who really didn’t look like he belonged at a feed and seed store got out and walked up to the counter.
“Colin Dirksen,” Pete addressed the visitor. “How may we help you today?”
“Is Carla here?” Dirksen asked.
“She’s out making deliveries,” Pete informed him. “She should be back shortly.”
“Thank you,” Dirksen replied. He started to wander about the store, killing time while waiting for her. He was the school’s guidance counsellor, a relatively new position at Hallett Comprehensive.
He didn’t have to wait long; about ten minutes later everyone heard a Ford pick-up truck make a stiff left turn and, braking against the loose gravel in the parking lot, come to a stop just in front of one of the roll-up doors. Dirksen wasn’t far from the counter and came back towards it as the truck door opened and the engine stopped. Carla emerged from the truck, which had the company logo on the doors and showed signs of many miles. She was dressed in jeans and a Western shirt. She closed the door to the truck with a satisfying thud, slung her long blonde mane behind her head and down her back, and walked up towards the counter, stopping at a suitable distance from both Dirksen and her father.
“Mr. Dirksen,” she said, obviously surprised. “I thought you’d be on Christmas vacation.”
“Yule vacation,” he corrected her. “You know our new law. Don’t you remember this from our last school assembly?”
“Oh, yeah, I do,” Carla unhappily recalled.
“So what brings you here?” Pete asked.
“Well, I just stopped by to invite Carla to a new organisation we are having at our school. For some reason, we didn’t work out all of the details before the last bell, so I’m going round to students I feel have potential. Carla always has been one of our outstanding students, so she was at the top of my list.”
“We’ve always been proud of her,” Pete chimed in.
“So what organisation is this?” Carla asked, still suspicious.
“It’s a Life Identification Society,” Dirksen replied. “Other schools have been very successful with them. Our organisational meeting is on Tuesday, January 5. I very much hope that you can come.”
“Well. . .identification isn’t my problem. Everybody in the school knows the kind of person I am. That’s why I wasn’t allowed to stand for Student Council this year.”
“I am unimpressed with your self-pity,” Dirksen came back. “You know the school rules require that any member of the Student Council must take a cooperative attitude towards the school administration and its policies. If you haven’t forgotten, your attitude was anything but cooperative last year. We indulged you far too long. Besides, the purpose of the Life Identification Society isn’t to enable us to assume an identity, but to come out of our shell and find our real self.”
“Well, I’ve never been a wallflower,” Carla observed.
“Shows such as you put on last year are just that. We’re talking about what you really are.” He looked at Carla from head to toe and back again several times. “It is obvious that you are well gifted for such a pursuit.”
Carla stood and thought for a bit. She looked at her father, who didn’t signal anything back with his expression.
“I’m not interested,” she firmly replied, trying to get her point across without losing her temper, which was obvious by the redness that was coming up in her face. “I know girls in other schools who are in them. I know what they do. I don’t do those kinds of things. I won’t join, period, paragraph.”
Dirksen was obviously not totally prepared for Carla reaction. It was his turn to think.
“Suit yourself,” he said, trying to regain the upper hand. “You’re not dating Annette Connolly’s son any more, are you?”
“I broke up with him right after school started,” Carla informed him.
“Pity. . .surely someone like you would not leave that part of your life empty, now?”
“Between school, tennis and work, I really don’t have much time for dating. I’m trying to get ready to go away to university next year.”
“Oh yes. . .since you brought that up, are you still going to that religious college on the mainland?”
“Yeah,” she answered.
“I still find that disappointing,” Dirksen said. “You are a very bright girl. Your academic performance has only been matched by your exploits on the tennis court, which has brought a great deal of pride to HRCS. I cannot understand why you would want to throw all that away in an environment where your only future would be raising some fundamentalist stud’s six or so children.” He stopped and thought for a second. “You know that your graduation is a necessary prerequisite to going to a school even like this, don’t you?”
“There are other ways of fulfilling that requirement,” she responded, anticipating the threat.
“I find it hard to believe that even they would want to take a school leaver—voluntary or otherwise—into their institution,” Dirksen came back. “Well, if you ever change your mind, let me know—you have two weeks until the meeting.” He turned to walk away, then turned back towards Pete. “You know, I always found it odd that you, with the traditional attitudes towards women that are so prevalent around here, that you work Carla the way you do.”
“A Stanley is never afraid of hard work,” Pete answered. “All of my children have worked in the business. It’s good for them and good for the family.”
“How do you think she got in shape to play tennis the way she does?” John interjected.
“How indeed,” Dirksen came back. “Well, good day and Happy Yule.” With that he walked out to the Cortina, got in and left while the rest stood and watched him.
“That was very impertinent of you, young lady,” Pete scolded Carla. “You should show more respect to an official of your school than that, even if you don’t agree with him. You’d still be on Student Council if you had last year.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she replied. She wanted to say more but knew better.
“I need to go over our receivables with your mother in the office,” Pete said. “You’ve got work to do.”
“Yes, sir,” she dutifully replied. He turned to go to the office. It had the only air conditioning in the place in the form of a window unit. Much of the year it was the place to be, but now the air conditioning served mostly as a dehumidifier. He went back and closed the door, leaving Carla and John up front.
John looked around and then back at Carla. “You did the right thing, kid,” he said. “I’ve got a niece down at Dillman-Arnold who’s in one of those. I hate to talk like this in front of you, but it turned her into a complete slut. If it were my kid he was talking to, I’d have belted him in the mouth.”
“He just doesn’t understand,” Carla replied. “I just want to explode, but Mother says not to, it’s not the Christian thing to do, and it probably wouldn’t do any good. But I can’t understand why he’s making it so hard for me to be the Christian he raised me to be.”
“Don’t take it personal,” John advised. “He means well. Like you say, he just doesn’t understand.”
“You’re right,” Carla reluctantly agreed. “I’ll take the truck around back and start straightening things up before we close for Christmas.”
“I’ll come help you when I can break loose from here,” John promised. Carla turned and walked back towards the truck. John looked at her and said to himself, “That kid’s got everything. . .everything.”
Monday brought an endless battery of medical tests to Madeleine’s life, convincing her and her mother that getting to the diagnosis was worse than than the disease itself. Finally at 1630, the doctor decided to release Madeleine, convinced that they had little additional to contribute, and satisfied that the des Cieux could give her sufficient care at home to allow her release. Armed with a long list of orders and prescriptions, Pierre and Yveline wheeled Madeleine out of the hospital, gingerly loaded her into her own Citröen Dyane, and brought her back to that little piece of France that they called home.
Without Carla, the des Cieux had to take up the slack of supplementing what the hospital could do for her. Pierre brought in a small shortwave radio and they were able to listen to broadcasts from back home, dispensing with the non-functional television. The family took times about going home to rest, to get more things for a stronger and more demanding Madeleine, and to attend Mass at the Cathedral. Pierre went to the 1100 Mass, and wasn’t in a very pious mood as he greeted his bishop, Anthony Santini, as he was leaving.
Santini looked like more like a Cardinal than the bishop of a very small diocese whose presence was illegal in most of the Island. In his early fifties, with his wire-rimmed glasses perched on his large nose, Santini had only been bishop for a year and a half. Like most Catholic Bishops of Verecunda the past forty years, Santini had been elevated with Lucian Gerland’s blessing, as if the man had la regale that had slipped out of the hands of the crowned heads of Europe. But Santini also prided himself in his good relationship with the current government, a useful if short-sighted expedient in Allan Kendall’s Verecunda.
“I understand from Raymond that your daughter is doing better,” Santini proclaimed to Pierre.
“If Father Moore had made more than one fleeting visit, you would know this for yourself,” Pierre replied sourly.
“You make many demands on mother church you should not,” Santini scolded back. “The Secretary of State—excuse me, the Foreign Minister—just revoked the visas of my two Irish priests. I am short handed.”
“So why don’t you send at least one of them to Collina and bring Father Becker over?”
“Vatican II notwithstanding, it is not the role of the laity to dictate assignment of priests. Besides, I may have to send Avalon back to his native land if he keeps kicking against the goads on the subject of abortion and the many other things he does to antagonise the government.”
“I regret to inform you that we have had better ecclesiastical representation from Madeleine’s Baptist friends than from ‘mother church,’” Pierre retorted.
“Your Baptist friends are in more serious trouble than we are,” Santini came back. “Sects such as they are at the top of the government’s list of bad elements, as they should be, ecumenical considerations notwithstanding.”
“And whom do you think they will visit when they are finished with them?” Pierre asked.
“You are very impertinent, my son,” Santini replied irritatedly. “The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Good day,” and with that he turned and walked away. But he did actually visit Madeleine early that evening.
Pierre and Yveline were still asleep when the phone rang about 1000.
“Allo!” he said, not fully aware as to what country he was in.
“Mr. des Cieux?” the girl’s voice came back.
“Yes, it is.”
“It’s Carla. Madeleine is awake. Her fever has broken. She’s awake, soaking wet and hungry.” There was a long silence over the phone. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine. I’ll be there soon. Thank you.” He placed the black handset back on the cradle.
“What is it?” Yveline asked him.
“Carla just informed me that Madeleine’s fever has broken and she’s awake.”
Yveline looked at Pierre in shock, then turned, bounded from the bed, and yelled, “Raymond! Raymond! Get up! Madeleine’s awake!”
“I’m awake, Maman,” Raymond answered from the other room. Yveline turned her efforts towards Pierre, but even in his state he needed little encouragement. It wasn’t long before the three got to the hospital and burst into Madeleine’s room.
“Papa, Maman,” Madeleine weakly whispered as she, then he enveloped her with their arms. Yveline was sobbing as she held her handkerchief in one hand and Madeleine’s hand in another.
“When did this happen?” Pierre asked Carla as he gained his wits about him.
“I’m not sure,” Carla said. “I woke up about nine thirty and heard her moaning. I got the nurses to check her out and her fever’s gone. They called the doctor but he’s not here yet, it may take a while since it’s Saturday.”
“Well it might,” Pierre mused. He looked over as Yveline pulled one of her famous croissants out of her bag for Madeleine. “She thinks of everything.” He looked back at Carla, who was eyeing it longingly. “I hope you followed your normal custom and brought enough for two young ladies.”
Yveline stopped and looked at Pierre and Carla. “Oh, yes,” she said, handing one to Carla.
“Thank you,” Carla said.
“She usually brings enough with her for our entire office when she comes to visit,” Pierre observed while she took care of her men as well. He then turned back to his wife. “Since Miss Stanley has sacrificed so much in watching over our daughter, perhaps our hospitality should extend beyond this.”
“This was very good,” Carla observed while finishing her croissant.
“I was thinking about that small café about two blocks from here, near the Theatre of the Muses,” Pierre said.
“My parents are supposed to come by here about eleven,” Carla said.
“Call then and ask them to join us,” Pierre replied. “I never miss an opportunity to ‘wine and dine’ my customers, as you say in English. For you and your parents, I must stick with the dining, which is a pity, since I do not know how else to repay you for what you have done for Madeleine.”
“She needed me,” Carla said flatly. “I couldn’t do anything else.” They all hugged Madeleine very gingerly, and left her with Yveline.
It wasn’t very long before the doctor on call that weekend came in. He put his best poker face on when he realised the unexpected turn of events and called the nurse in. Patiently alternating between checking her vital signs and looking at her chart, he finally turned to Yveline.
“Her recovery is quite remarkable, but she is still very weak. She must remain hospitalised until we can run the full battery of tests and ascertain that what we are seeing is her actual trend.”
“So why has her recovery been so rapid?” Yveline asked.
“It’s hard to say,” the doctor replied. “Encephalitis can take many different courses. Obviously she must have a very strong constitution.”
“She comes from strong people,” Yveline explained. “My father was gassed during la Grande Guerre; Pierre’s went through Verdun. He himself fought with Leclerc to take our country back from the Germans; that’s how we met. During the invasion, he found me in our farmhouse.”
“That’s very interesting,” the doctor opined. “But diseases such as this can bring down even the strongest among us.” He scribbled on her chart and, nurse in tow, left the room.
Pierre returned about 1200 with Raymond, Carla and her parents. The Stanleys had brought Yveline some food as well.
“I guess I need to get back home,” Carla said. “We’re supposed to be having relatives in from the mainland. And I’m supposed to be in my church’s Christmas program.”
“So what are you playing?” Raymond asked curiously.
“One of the angels that announces the birth of Jesus,”Carla replied.
“You’ve already been that,” Madeleine said weakly. “Thank you so much.” The girls hugged to the extent they could and cried for the rest, and Yveline did the same with Carla and her mother. The men shook hands and the Stanleys left for the other end of the country.
Raymond was the early bird the next morning; he had arranged an early morning tennis match with Deidre, so her mother came and got him before Pierre had the chance to arouse himself with East Island coffee, closer to what he was used to than the more American brew the Verecundans drank. Arthur came a little later and brought him to the shop, eventually Raymond joined them, they returned to port and they were on their way back to Verecunda, very satisfied with Pierre’s intermediate stop.
The sun was just setting over Verecunda Bay when the ferry pulled into its wharf in front of the customs house. Even before they had a chance to step on the gangway and go ashore, Luke Allen, Pierre’s warehouse manager and a burly man with some Island native blood in him, greeted them in his usual straightforward manner. Luke wasn’t much for a sunny disposition but even before he helped Pierre and Raymond get their luggage off of the boat he delivered news as only he could.
“Madeleine’s in the hospital, Boss,” Luke informed Pierre.
“Hospital? For what? Why wasn’t I called, at least in Alemara?”
“She only went in this afternoon—felt a little woozy yesterday, went out of her head this morning, collapsed just before lunch. ”
“So what is the doctor’s idea of what is wrong with her?” Pierre asked, agitated.
Luke thought for a minute. “You’ll have to ask him, Boss—I’m not really sure. It’s serious, though.”
“Very well,” Pierre sighed. With that they disembarked. Luke did his usual magic getting Pierre, Raymond and their luggage into Pierre’s old Citröen 2CV—another of Pierre’s “trademarks”—and with Luke driving they puttered off to the hospital.
The Verecunda Municipal Hospital was an imposing building between Gerland Street and the university. It’s main virtue was that it was the only facility of its kind on the Island. People came from everywhere to be greeted by inadequate hall lighting shining on the green walls, resplendent in their lead-based enamel paint. While admiring this, doctors, nurses, patients and visitors alike were able to walk on well waxed, beige asbestos floor tile.
The main entrance lobby was decorated to match the rest of the establishment. Pierre and Raymond were only cheered by seeing Yveline des Cieux in the lobby waiting for them. They threw their arms around each other as they had not in a long time.
“So what has happened?” Raymond asked.
“She has encephalitis,” Yveline gravely reported. “It is a serious case. The doctor will be by in about half an hour. Let’s go.”
“Indeed,” Pierre agreed, and they headed to the elevator. As it rose up to Madeleine’s floor, it beeped and flashed as it passed the intermediate ones, echoing Madeleine’s own heartbeat and struggle for life. Pierre hoped that Madeleine’s own inner rhythm was quicker, because the elevator was interminably slow as it crawled upward past each floor. Finally they arrived at her level, burst from the elevator in uncharacteristically rapid fashion and made their way to her room, not far from the nurse’s station.
Pierre stopped dead in his tracks at the door—not for Madeleine, but for Pete and Alice Stanley, standing up to greet them. A couple in their early forties who still echoed in looks and demeanour the fact that they were high school—or Upper Division, as the Islanders would put it—sweethearts, they owned the feed and seed store that supplied upper Uranus along with Vidamera, Alemara and sometimes Aloxa. They were also tractor and farm equipment dealers as well, which meant that they purchased tyres from Pierre from time to time.
“It is very kind of you to visit,” Pierre said, not sure what else to say.
“It is her doing,” Pete answered, pointing to his daughter Carla awakening from a nap on her cot. A Sixth Former like Madeleine, Carla was almost the perfect “Aryan” in appearance: bleached wavy blonde hair flowing down her back, blue eyes and fair complexion complemented by broad shoulders and a slender figure. She roused herself and stood up, not well put together in the present situation.
“She insisted on coming and being with Madeleine,” Alice added. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Because of the crime that’s about, we came with her. My brother lives in town; we’ve made arrangements to stay with him while she’s here.”
Pierre removed his hat very slowly, as if in respect. “I have had many loyal customers over the years, but you have exceeded all of them.” From that he approached his daughter lying in the bed. Madeleine was wired with IV’s and monitors. She had a very pale look about her as she lay in the bed motionless. Raymond was right behind him; both were visibly shaken at the sight before them.
Pierre finally turned back to the Stanleys and Yveline. “My wife tells me it is encephalitis. But how?”
“We were playing tennis on Wednesday, up in Hallett,” Carla said. “We were both bit by mosquitoes. I guess her’s was the bad one.”
“But this time of year?” Pierre asked.
“Since they outlawed DDT, they’ve gotten worse,” Pete stated. “Even in a dry December like this one. We used to worry about the ones coming over the border. Now we’ve got to deal with our own.”
“So what are they doing about it?” Raymond asked.
“There isn’t much they can do,” Pierre gravely observed. “We must wait and see what happens.” He looked around. “How did she get this private room?”
“Pulled a few strings,” Pete admitted. “Makes it easier on Carla. They moved her out of intensive care because there wasn’t much more they could do there.”
“Surely you’re not going to stay all the time,” Pierre declared.
“I can’t leave her,” Carla said. “It takes forever to get anything around here. She needs me.”
“Since they set up national health care,” Pete came in, “things have gotten slower.”
“They lost quite a few doctors,” Alice added.
Pierre found himself lost in his thoughts at all that suddenly confronted him. He looked around to see the two flower arrangements that were in the room.
“I assume one of those is yours,” Pierre said, looking at Pete and pointing at the flowers.
“The other came from your people at the warehouse,” he replied.
“Has the priest come?” Pierre asked.
“About 16 hours,” Yveline said. “He came in, performed the last rites—or the unction of the sick, as they call it now—and left. That was all.”
Pierre stood in silence again. “The doctor’s supposed to be here shortly, isn’t he?” he finally asked.
“Supposed to,” Carla replied. “But they run slow too. If he’s here by eight, I’d be surprised. It took them three hours to figure out what was wrong with her to start with.”
“Why don’t we take the kids down to eat somewhere while you stay here for the doctor?” Pete asked after a very long silence.
“That’s a good idea,” Pierre agreed, “but I sense that I will be waiting for Godot.” With that the four of them left for the hospital’s cafeteria. Once again Raymond was the biggest winner, getting to sit with his sister’s friend, whom he thought pretty if two forms up from him. Carla didn’t feel like she was as much company as she was, a shell-shocked feeling unchanged by the cafeteria’s uninspiring cuisine. They returned about 1730 to find the des Cieux pretty much as they left them.
They didn’t have a chance to ask about the doctor, as he came in behind them. He officiously went through the diagnosis. The des Cieux learned nothing new: Madeleine had encephalitis, it was a serious, fast-acting case, there was little she could do, and the prognosis wasn’t very good. He bounded out of the room as quickly as he came in.
Pete could see that Pierre was beyond making decisions. “Why don’t we follow you home so you can get some rest and something to eat. There’s nothing you can do here, and there’s no reason you should have to endure Island hospital cafeteria food. Carla will let us know if anything changes.”
“It is the best thing, I suppose,” Pierre finally agreed. He leaned over and kissed Madeleine on the forehead, as did Yveline.
“Are you sure you will be all right?” Yveline asked Carla.
“I brought my things,” she said, pointing to her duffel bag in the corner. “I’ve got clothes hanging in the closet. I’ve done this before. I’ll be OK.”
“Very well,” Pierre agreed. The Stanleys hugged and kissed their daughter and everyone but Carla and Madeleine left.
“Your daughter is more than kind to do what she is doing,” Pierre told the Stanleys as they navigated their Ford estate car though the streets of Verecunda.
“She’s always been that way,” Alice said. “When her grandmother was dying, she stayed with her to the end.”
“She is very special,” Yveline added.
“We think so,” Alice replied.
“But how much can she do?” Pierre asked.
“May the Lord’s will be done!” Pete said as they turned into Pierre’s neighbourhood.
Back at the hospital, Carla tried to settle in for the evening. The room’s television’s picture tube was blown, so that wasn’t an option, and not much of one in any case since Verecunda had only one, state-owned TV channel. Nevertheless Carla ventured out to see if there was a waiting room where one was working, to pass some time and clear her mind. She found one only to discover they were in the middle of a Soviet film festival, so she turned her back on How the Steel was Tempered and returned to the room. She read her Bible for a bit but then closed it to pray.
She took Madeleine’s very warm, feverish hand and began to turn her heart and conversation towards God. As a Baptist, she had learned to pray prayers that were both spontaneous but well orchestrated at the same time. She started in on one of those but not too far into it she broke down in tears, pleading with God to save Madeleine’s life while crying into the bedsheet. She was so loud one of the nurses came down to see what was wrong. Carla regained enough of her composure to reassure the nurse somewhat, then she resumed prayer in a more conventional fashion. She soon found fatigue catching up with her, and it wasn’t long that she was fast asleep.
Pierre was unusual in that he was a second-generation expatriate; his father worked for the same company that he did, and Pierre himself was born in China where his father had been posted after surviving the trenches of la Grande Guerre. After two generations of des Cieux going abroad, Pierre had the deep sense that, instead of selling into the modern world, he was reliving his father’s more primitive postings, and his return trip home underscored that feeling.
When Pierre arrived in Serelia, he did so by ferry from Alemara with no car, so he made arrangements to hire one of the church’s vehicles to get himself around. After several days of beating around Serelia’s narrow, poorly maintained roads, he arrived at the Amhersts’, his last stop. They insisted on taking him back to the port, and early the next morning, while the Amhersts slept off their ample alcohol consumption from the night before, the driver loaded Pierre’s luggage—now without the champagne he had brought with him—and headed to the morning darkness to the port in Serelia town. Once more he transferred self and stuff into another conveyance, this time the ferry. As the ferry headed out the inlet and the rising sun fell on the ship’s starboard bow, Pierre stood to watch as the palace passed by. Once it cleared the inlet, the ship’s course was set more towards the sun as it headed along the eastern shore of the Island.
Pierre’s trip was more visually appealing than usual in that his travelling companions for the day were a group of silly Alemaran and Vidameran girls coming home from St. Anne’s School up the coast from Serelia town, some still in their school uniforms. Pierre knew most of their parents, so he was able to make conversation, explaining to them them their mistakes on their French exams, more pleasantly enthralling them with stories from his travels, and giving the voyage a more cosmopolitan feel. At the same time he was gathering intelligence, both for himself about their parents and for his daughter Madeleine about St. Anne’s girls’ tennis team, which Madeleine’s school was supposed to play the following year.
They rounded the point at Drago and headed outside of the Gulf of Cresca, finally threading their way through Campbell’s Cut and arriving at Alemara’s Government Dock. Passing through the usual formalities, Pierre came through to be greeted by his son Raymond, finishing up the first part of his Fourth Form experience at Alemara Academy. Raymond’s greeting of his father, however, wasn’t very attentive; he was drawn to all of these girls his father had been travelling with, and so while Raymond spent time socialising with them Pierre engaged in conversation with their parents.
As it happened both Pierre and Raymond achieved their objective. Staying at the Alemaran Guest House, Pierre ended up having dinner with Arthur and Maureen Williamson. Arthur was on Alemara’s ruling council and owned the auto repair and parts shop which was Pierre’s principal outlet in Alemara. Across the room Raymond attempted to exercise his Gallic charm, undimmed by his father’s foreign postings, on their daughter Deidre, who had already experienced his father’s ability to attract and hold attention. Both father and son agreed at the end that life just didn’t get much better than it had that evening.
The Amherst Estate was, after the Royal one, the single largest holding in the Kingdom of Serelia, especially since those of their rivals the Cavitts and Masters had brutally passed into the Crown’s holdings. The nerve centre of the estate was the family mansion, situated at the end of a spur off of the Old Beran Road, that civil engineering wonder of the World War I era that both united and divided the Island at the same time. The spur ended in a circular loop that was as barely paved as the narrow way that connected the Estate’s centre with the outside world. The loop was perched on a slightly elevated place in an otherwise homogeneously flat part of the earth.
The mansion itself, which echoed plantation architecture of the antebellum American South, was a two-storey affair which faced due east as surely as any Masonic Lodge or Christian church or cathedral could want to, and more so than Serelia’s own Cathedral of St. Thomas. For the observer standing in front of the mansion’s entrance, one could see to the immediate right the guest house, necessary since the second generation of Amhersts to occupy the house had been very fertile, with four children. Beyond that was the servants’ quarters, itself with a little courtyard that the confederado western neighbours, the Dentons, referred to as the “Negro yard.” But there were no Negroes there; the last black people to work for the Amhersts massacred them when they were in the west, searing the memory and leaving a lasting legacy on family and national policy. The occupants were as European in ancestry as those in the mansion, and rumour had it that some of them were blood relatives of their own “masters,” but such rumours were only said in very hushed tones.
To the left of the servants’ quarters were the stables. The Amhersts were said to have the best horses in the country; they certainly were the most equestrian family in the kingdom, riding for sport and to help manage their vast estate. Separating the stables from the business office—which rounded out the square—was the spur itself, moving off straight away from the estate centre, then through alternating subtropical thickets and fields, towards the main road and ultimately the rum distillery that was an important source of income for the Amhersts and the town that bore their name.
The centre of the circle—or more accurately the oval—was a well-manicured patch of Bermuda grass with a ficus hedge or two. The scene, combined with the family history, begged for some kind of monument, but the master wasn’t much for monuments to his past or that of his forbears.
All of this private property was hard to see on the moonless and slightly warmer than usual December night. Looking out from the mansion’s front, the Milky Way rose from the earth, leaning off to the north, leaving Saturn to its right and high in the sky to join the stars in looking down on the scene. The Amhersts weren’t much for security lighting either, so the only lights to break the darkness other than the stars and planet alternately showing and hiding behind the cirrus clouds sailing in the sky were the ring of lights showing through the windows of the various buildings.
The darkened quiet of the scene was only broken at last by laughter and conversation that burst forth from the second storey balcony on the mansion. A full balcony that extended across the entire front of the house, it also split the columns horizontally that gave the dwelling its “plantation” look. As the host and guest came out and seated themselves on the wicker chairs, the servant followed dutifully with the Boreal orange liqueur that was both Serelia’s trademark and an important source of revenue for the Crown.
The two men who seated themselves on the end of the balcony facing the guest house were a study in contrast. The estate’s owner, Elton Amherst, had just passed his three score and ten in apparent good form. His signature red hair was almost completely white by now, but he had most of it. Thin with his military bearing, before he was seated he strode across the balcony with ramrod straight posture. Although he was born in what is now Aloxa, his accent was that typical “East Island” one, with its formalities of phrase.
His guest was the Island’s premier tyre salesman, Pierre des Cieux. Although their heights were not that divergent, the effect was entirely different, as Pierre’s creeping waistline was turning his country’s famous crise de foie into a crise de l’oie. Pierre had already remounted his trademark straw hat back on his head; some on the Island were convinced that he was born with it on. The hat concealed balding at work, but he compensated for that to some extent with his moustache, still mostly dark at this stage. His own accent revealed someone who had worked very hard at learning English but whose overlay of French was inseparable.
As they were seated, the servant poured the liqueur, bowed to both of them, and left the balcony. Elton lit one of his Havana cigars and Pierre his pipe.
“It’s a pity that Thomas cannot join us,” Pierre noted.
“There’s always something to attend to,” Elton observed. “My son isn’t much of a socialiser in any case. When he becomes master of the estate, you will come here, he will haggle with you a bit over the price, he will give you your order, and you will leave very shortly, which will give you more time to collect your money from our neighbours to the west.” They both chuckled at that.
“Your family seems to be doing quite well.”
“Other than my wife’s departure for the ‘celestial lodge,’ as we used to say, they are. . .”
“Grandpa!” The cry came from the centre of the balcony. They saw Thomas’ wife Susan standing at the door. She was an attractive blonde but Pierre noticed a sad shadow over her mood the whole time they were together. But the centre of attention was her little daughter Darlene, in her pyjamas, her bright red hair made up into pigtails. “Grandpa!” she cried again and ran over enthusiastically towards Elton, the rhythm of her tiny feet beating enthusiastically on the wood plank balcony floor. Her dash came to an abrupt halt when she got in front of Pierre. She stopped, looked at him quizzically, then extended to him her right hand.
“En-chan-tée,” she mouthed out, obviously memorised.
“D’accord,” he replied, taking and kissing her hand. She put her performance into oblivion and resumed her run toward Elton.
“I love you, Grandpa,” she said, reaching up for him. He leaned over, took her up into his lap and kissed her forehead. They hugged for a long time.
“I love you too,” he answered. “You have sweet dreams.” Darlene was in no hurry to get out of his lap but she sensed her mother’s impatience and finally parted, running back to Susan and leading her back into the house.
“She’s very charming,” Pierre said.
Elton took a sip from his liqueur. “There’s something special about her. She’s the most affectionate child I’ve ever seen—and, for some reason, everyone around here has taken leave of their senses and indulged her. But her brothers have decided that they needed a boy for a sibling. They take her on hunting and fishing trips—very quick study, from what they tell me. Too quick sometimes—just last week her mother had to give her a good whipping and wash her mouth out with soap for using some of the salty language her brothers find inseparable. It seems that, since she is so ‘out of order,’ normal conventions don’t apply.” He turned and looked Pierre straight in the eye. “I think she has a decidedly ‘unwomanly’ future ahead of her.”
“To be frank, in this society that is surprising,” Pierre responded, trying to be careful.
“This is a different world we live in. Who knows what could happen? Even here. But she’ll definitely do better than that bubble-headed sister of hers.”
“Of course. Inherited all of her mother’s beauty and charm. But it doesn’t go much beyond that. Now she’s taken up with the help, that stable boy Barton Caldwell. Susan can’t bring herself to face the fact that they are seeing more of each other than they should. We put the servants’ quarters where we could keep an eye on them, but it works both ways. Barton’s gotten his eyeful—and more. I know it. Her brothers know it. But her parents won’t do what they have to do.” Even Pierre, always the conversationalist, was at a loss to deal with this outburst.
Elton picked up on his guest’s discomfort. “Sorry to burden you with such things,” he resumed. “But I know you’re a man of discretion.”
“Of course,” Pierre recovered.
“So how has your trip to Serelia gone?”
“Very well. I have seen all of my end users, including those in Drago, Cresca and Fort Albert. Had a very good audience with His Majesty and the Bishop as well.”
“Our dear sovereign. . .his father was a fine fellow, I owed a lot to him. I still feel his loss last year. His son is good, but too much like dealing with the Sphinx. But that’s also a matter for discretion. So how many cases of champagne did you bring to the East Island? The champagne you presented to Thomas and me is magnificent.”
“Three actually. It is a good thing to do at Christmas time, to appreciate our loyal customers.”
“From a drinking standpoint, it is a drop in the bucket in this country. . .but it is a fabulous gesture. You should be commended. You are Jaques’ worthy successor. So how is he doing these days, in retirement?”
“Very well—I don’t hear from him much, so he must be having a very good time.”
“Didn’t he retire to the south of France?”
“Evidently he hadn’t had enough of the hot weather in this place. One of these days, one of you will decide to stay here. But the Island is a rough place.”
“I have enjoyed it very much. It is an interesting territory, pleasant in many ways, challenging in others. Serelia is, frankly, straightforward. Verecunda has gotten interesting with the recent political changes.”
“Political? Ideology? Rubbish!” Elton exclaimed. “It’s all personal vengeance. He married Max Herver’s granddaughter, and she wants revenge for Lucian Gerland wheedling her family out of that estate of theirs. If you want to keep something in the family, the family has to stick together!”
“But, all of this legislation he is passing—there is some kind of social agenda.”
“It’s the Americans’ fault. They spoiled this generation coming up, so their kids threw a tantrum, just like little Darlene does when she doesn’t get her way. But you see even Susan knows what to do when that happens. Their idea of discipline is to let this tantrum go all over the world. What they’re doing is vile, and will lead to Verecunda’s destruction. I told His Majesty just last week what I always told his father—if he lets that kind of thing into this country, we’ll end up the same way and he’ll lose his throne. So far, I think he’s listening to me. Now, the American’s won’t fight for what they have thanks to this ‘tantrum,’ so not only do we have to worry about a bunch of fornicators and drug addicts taking over the Island, but now we have to worry about the sound of Soviet boots goose-stepping down our streets. You’ve met Russian expatriates, haven’t you?”
“Many, over the years. My father counted a good number as friends.”
“Then you know what the Reds can do.” Elton took a good swallow of liqueur to calm himself from the small tirade he just made, easing back into a more relaxed posture in his chair.
Elton looked at Pierre again. “You must excuse me from burdening you,” he resumed. “I have lived on this Island for more than three score now. When I was born, the sons of Beran ruled most of it, the Negroes knew their place, the Verecundans and Collinans were confined to the corner of the Island, and all was well. But things are not the same now. Today we have a collection of kinglets fighting for every scrap of swamp they can get their hands on. The Negroes spilled the blood of kings and rulers and have nothing to show for it. The Verecundans are following blind guides over the cliff. Thank God we have a Christian king and a magnificent Christian church to help us avoid such dangers and have a country where everyone can do what’s right.”
His servants had a sixth sense of when his glass was empty; they refilled it just at the end of his last speech, along with Pierre. For his part des Cieux was agitated by his thoughts. Usually he knew how to ‘hold it in,’ but Elton could detect his nervousness, especially with his extended silence.
“There’s something bothering you, my friend,” Elton noted. “Let me guess, you’ve heard rumours.”
“This is true,” Pierre finally confessed, realising that his own sang-froid had been overcome. “You must excuse me for my impertinence, but ever since I have lived on the Island, I have heard it whispered that you are in fact the senior descendant of the kings of Beran through your mother.”
Elton sighed and looked out on the oval. “Such fairy tales are magnificent, but it’s not so. My father took the privilege of gentlemen, and so my mother was not his wife. He chose to raise me amongst his other sons. That is why I lost my head and ended up here—by God’s grace, as it turns out. So put such things out of your mind, and enjoy the evening—the children of the royal house of Beran are no more, if it were otherwise Allan Kendall would not be wasting his time fighting the Gerlands. The sons of Beran had no equal in their day and do not now.”
“One can only amuse oneself with what could have happened if the two had joined together.”
“The Gerlands and the house of Beran?” Elton asked, a little startled.
“Now that is a fairy tale!”