“Il y a longtemps,” I repeated. “A long time ago.” My French felt clumsier every minute.
Renard Busquet, leading me through the pearl-gray dimness of the silent east wing, let his own native Poitevin French drop like a thin stream of Vouvray wine. “A long time… Tell me again how your honored ancestor sat in the back lawn.”
“It was in 1871,” I recounted. (Busquet twisted the glass knob of the glass-paned door without a sound, and held it open for me, smiling amiably.) “―In 1871, my great-great-grandfather, Florian Busquet, was nineteen. He had made up his mind; he would not remain in Poitier, as his brothers and fathers, everyone in his family, had done from the time the family first received its arms from Charles VIII; he would go to America. He knew no trade; he had nothing but the small sum his father (your great-great-grandfather, recall, Monsieur) would settle on him; nothing but those francs and his own youth and boundless optimism.”
Renard led the way across a pavement of terra-cotta-colored bricks. I had never seen such bricks, let alone been in France; and yet the remarkably clean, peach-hued bricks, tightly fitted without a weed or even traces of moss in between, gave me a fleeting sense of familiarity. “―It was evening,” I continued. “The evening of his last day at Villa Busquet, where he, and his father before him, and his father, were born and raised… dinner was over, and the family were sitting on rattan chairs on the back lawn. My great-great-grandfather’s older brother, the heir, Phillippe… always sat with his legs crossed; my great-great-grandfather remembered clearly every detail of the scene, the last time he saw his family, in the setting of their beautiful home. Phillippe sat with his legs crossed. The rattan table…”
Renard gestured with an unhurried hand to the rattan chairs set on the uneven grass. “Take a chair, take a chair. Ah yes, Phillippe sat with his hands crossed, and the table…”
He, the current heir of Busquet, sat down and crossed his legs. “Do go on!”
“My grandfather was seated nearest to the terrace,” I said. “Then a funny thing happened. The dog… a little foxhound with plumy ears and tail, which they called Charlot, came around the corner of the house, just over there. He was carrying…”
A small, energetic shape rounded the corner of the conservatory. A foxhound pelted gaily toward us, its feathery ears and tail waving; it bounded up to Renard’s legs, and―horrors!―it was carrying a very large, bloody rat.
“Charlot!” scolded Renard. “Put that down, at once! Get away with you, ridiculous animal!”
I could not have moved if Charlot had shoved the rat in my face.
As Charlot slunk off with his quarry, the slim Poitevin, seated in the rattan chair with his legs crossed, invited mildly, “You were saying?”
“Charlot was carrying a rat,” I managed, after a moment. “The ancient Charlot. In 1871. He carried a rat up to my great-great-uncle Phillippe, who was sitting with crossed legs, just there―”
“I am told it is a family trait,” said Renard; he did not uncross his comfortable limbs. “Every foxhound here is called Charlot.”
I did not tell him the rest of that scene, which my great-great-grandfather had remembered and recounted nostalgically so many times. What need was there to describe the rattan table with a plate of biscuits, the uneven turf and emerald-colored short grass, the myrtle trees and the cuckoos, or Phillippe’s graceful, deliberate figure―when they were all before me?
I had thought all my life that I understood why Florian Busquet had left the Old World; but now I felt at my core his nauseous urgency, to escape the vacuum, the place without time.
I had thought all my life that I understood why Phillipe Busquet had remained in the Old World; but now I felt at my core the overpowering seduction of the place without time.
My cousin smiled amiably, and I was motionless in my chair, pulled in half.
Feature Image: an Arcachon villa or Arcachonnaise.