"paulette. you are the lucky one, paulette. you get "romantic".
"you don't seem all that excited. your romantic novel will be done in the style of - balzac."
"oh. thank you."
by paulette popolescu
illustrated by roy dismas and konrad kraus
editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo
there are stretches of coast in the north of brittany so desolate that lighthouses seem almost superfluous, as it can hardly be imagined that any vessel other than those blown there by the deadliest storms would ever come near them. and yet so vast and unyielding are the bureaucracies governing france that dozens of these edifices are still to be found, that have not warned away a ship for generations. lighthouse keepers have been born and died, and had their humble stipends - barely enough to sustain life even in the best of times - delivered to them by that most admirable of our bureaucracies - the postal service (a subject dear to our hearts, but which we will give the attention it deserves elsewhere), without ever seeing the ocean disturbed, except by the wind and rain.
old morneau had been the sole occupant of one of these lighthouses, in the barely populated province of c---------, for longer than anyone, including himself, could remember. on the second day of every month, when the tide was low, he would descend the steps of the lighthouse and, leaning on his stout wooden stick, make his way across the rocky beach and down the twisted path to the village of f------------, thence to the postmistress's to receive his pay from the department of coastal defense ( a sub-department of the war office, established by m carnot himself).
he would then have a half a glass of wine at the local pub and arrange to have a month's supplies delivered from the general store, which was located not in the village itself but in a slightly larger village some leagues away. he would linger over his half glass of wine, giving himself just time to return to the lighthouse before dusk.
on the day our narrative commences, however, he varied his routine slightly. he had arrived early, as the tide had been early, and proceeded to madame the postmistress's as usual. he had taken his glass at the pub, but instead of gazing into it for half a day as was his established wont, he had virtually gulped it down in a single hour, then risen and headed out into the cold and hazy mid day.
he made his way, a bit uncertainly, to mother jeanne's. he could barely remember his last visit. to be sure, memory and time hardly exist in such places as the village of f--------, but if the old man had been worried that mother jeanne was no longer there, he need not have been.
every town of this sort has a mother jeanne, the keeper of the town secrets - insofar as a place where nothing happens can be said to have secrets. silent as spiders, inscrutable as jesuits, cats, or duchesses, they wait - most often in their shuttered rooms, although the very brightest days might find them at their windows or at their doors in their comfortable chairs - for the one thing the mother jeannes - like cardinals and notaries - insist upon is a comfortable chair.
the road was empty. morneau looked up at the gray sky, at the dead chestnut tree behind the little house, then at the grimy window of the little house.
there was no other house on the road. it must, then, be mother jeanne's. he rapped on the door with his stick. silence. he rapped again, and waited. waiting was not a problem for him - it was what he did, it was what he was.
he rapped a third time, and the door swung inward. a pair of green eyes looked up at him from the depths of a ragged shawl.
"you are mother jeanne?"
without bothering to answer, the old woman motioned him inside.
people such as old morneau and mother jeanne are obviously not city folk as we understand it in today's frantic world, but they are not really country folk, either, as they neither till the soil, pay much attention to the seasons, or observe the passage of time by marking holy days. they belong to a time before time, before the dark hand of civilization began turning the pages of the eternal blue dream... we will, therefore, forbear to try the patience of you, modern reader, with an account of the preliminaries observed - punctuated by long silences - before the worthy pair settled down to the business at hand.
"you have brought me something?" asked the old woman.
morneau produced a single coin - which he had actually been clutching in his large paw the whole time - and laid it on the wooden table between them.
mother jeanne snatched it up and inspected it. "who minted this? king clovis?"
"it is good gold."
"indeed it is." the coin disappeared into her depths.
a proper period of silence elapsed.
"and now, my lad, what can i do for you?"
(worthy reader, in deference to the value of your time, we will from this point omit mention of the pauses in the conversation, and simply transcribe it as if it happened in a cafe on the rue de la paix).
"i need something found for me."
"and what might that be?"
"in short - a wife."
"you find my request amusing."
"not at all. but then i am not easily amused."
"it may seem unusual - in a man of my age."
"not nearly so much as you may think."
"then you can help me."
"that is good of you."
"do you have any - specific requirements for this blushing bride?"
"one - only one."
"ah. let me guess - that she be young."
"no, no. not at all - i mean, not necessarily."
"not necessarily. what then - that she be strong?"
"that she be fertile. that is all i require."
"ah. of course. of course. you wish to leave an heir before you die."
the old man bowed his head.
"nothing to be ashamed of, old fellow. quite commendable, in fact. christ and st louis themselves could hardly disapprove."
"but not an easy thing to guarantee."
"i understand ."
"i will do what i can."
"that is all i ask."
"you are certain that nothing else matters - not youth, looks, strength... what if she has a big appetite, eh? or is too strong - strong enough to beat you like a dog?"
"i will worry about that. you need not."
"then i may be able to help you. "
"you require more money?"
"only if i find someone. i would not cheat you."
"then it is settled."
a long silence ensued.
reader, i apologize for bringing so humble and sordid a scene before you - i see you reaching for your perfumed handkerchief even as i write! i assure you, this is only a preliminary to the stirring tale of passion and romance i am about to unfold!