despite the assurances of the two aunts, dora, who was uncomfortable with any change in her settled existence - who in fact had difficulty even imagining such a thing - felt considerable apprehension about her proposed visit to the marriage bureau, and had little appetite.
the two aunts attacked the luncheon in their usual manner - aunt grunhilde with singleminded gusto, and aunt delphine with a delicate air of indifference, managing nonetheless to dispose of everything put before her .
as the minutes dragged by, dora's agony increased. she would have liked to ask a number of questions - but she was too well bred to open her mouth or to question the older women.
finally aunt delphine finished her last cup of tea and the cups and plates were removed.
as the afternoon sunlight receded dustily through the curtains, neither of the drowsing aunts seemed inclined to bring up the subject of the marriage bureau - could they have forgotten it? with a supreme effort, dora summoned up the effort to ask -
"should i have adelaide summoned, so that she can make ready to accompany me to the marriage bureau?"
"of course, of course," aunt grunhilde answered absently. "and i must be getting along to the countess of g---------'s".
aunt delphine seemed to have fallen asleep.
in due course dora found herself outside on the chilly street with her maid adelaide, waiting for the coachman to bring the carriage around.
despite aunt delphine's low opinion of her faculties, adelaide was as capable as anybody of shepherding dora to the administration building and the marriage bureau. a sharp-featured, impertinent creature with ideas very much above her station, adelaide was as well versed in current affairs as delphine herself, and took a particular interest in womans suffrage, a subject on which she held the most uncompromising opinions. she would have very much enjoyed discussing such things with her young mistress, who, by adelaide's lights, should have been in the forefront of the suffragette movement given her youth and social standing, but had found her a most apathetic and indifferent listener, and had therefore refrained from voicing her opinions too loudly or too often.
"do you think gustav will know the way?" dora now asked adelaide, as she watched her breath float away in the clear, cold air.
"know the way? miss, i know the way. we could walk there if that was your pleasure."
"oh no, no. it's - it's much too cold."
"pooh. bracing, i should say. anyways, it is the biggest building in the city, probably the biggest in the empire. if you don't count castles and such. it is so big it will find you if you can't find it."
"oh?" the phrase "biggest building in the empire" had struck a chord in dora's brain. "is it the biggest building in the world, then?"
"i do not know about that. i suppose it might be. but here is gustav."
gustav, an ageless servant, wore a blue uniform perfectly suited to his station and to the station of the von d------ family. on this occasion he was driving the townhouse's smallest coach, with a single small and well behaved pony.
"so, where are we headed this fine this morning?" he asked adelaide.
"the administration building."
"ah." gustav looked around. " nice afternoon for a walk, seems to me."
"that is not for you to decide, " adelaide answered sharply. she opened the door of the coach for dora to get in, but dora hesitated.
"which entrance?" gustav asked. "do you know where you want to go?"
"take us to the main entrance, please. we shall find our way from there."
gustav shook his head. "are you sure about that? folks have been known to lose their way in there. disappear, never to be seen again."
"we will have none of your old woodchopper's tales today, if you please!," adelaide quickly answered, seeing the look of horror on dora's face. "pay no mind to him," she added to dora, "it is just his country cousin humor. most inappropriate, at this or any other time. "
adelaide and gustav were old adversaries "below stairs", with adelaide generally standing up for the forward looking modern world and gustav inclining to the worldview of his peasant forbears.
dora and adelaide finally got into the carriage, with adelaide virtually pushing dora in, and they set off.
it seemed to dora that she had hardly settled in her seat before adelaide was jumping out and opening the door for her. what a hurry everyone was in!
the administration building stretched as far as dora could see. and though it was only a mile from her home, she had never seen it before. it filled three full city blocks, with enclosed passageways in the alleys between the blocks.
a huge brass double door, unadorned with any inscriptions and unflanked with any statuary, loomed before her. seven broad marble steps led up to it from the street. adelaide pointed her to it and she put her foot on the first step.
adelaide stayed behind for a word with the coachman. "i have told you before, gustav, for your own good, you should hold your tongue here in town. you are not in the country with the old baron lying on his dirty sofa with his pipe and his dogs not minding anything you say. these people in the city are not so quick to laugh."
"yes, duchess. tell me, do you think i will have time to smoke a pipe of my own while i wait for you?"
"i do not care what you do. but be here when we return."
gustav nodded and took his pipe out of his pocket, and then his tobacco. he began stuffing the pipe.
he watched as dora and adelaide began ascending the steps.
jacques, the proprietor of a tiny cafe in an alley in the heart of the city , looked up from his broom, with which he had been sweeping the sidewalk in front of his establishment.
"ah, good morning, m borin, i almost didn't see you there. a bit early this morning, eh? "
"indeed, for i was unable to procure a copy of my newspaper this morning, and i usually give it a casual perusal on my peregrination over here, which, as you may readily surmise, causes a corresponding reduction in my rate of ready approach. this morning, thus unburdened, i fairly flew over, and thus you see me."
"and i hope to see you well, monsieiur. the usual. monsieur?"
"of course. of course. what else would i have?" m borin settled his bulky carcass into "his" usual sidewalk table (one of three), the one which he always always took when it was available, and the weather suitable.
"to be sure, to be sure." jacques turned to the front window of the cafe, and made a signal to his youngest daughter, who had been stationed there, and who turned away in her usual sullen manner, to execute the indicated command.
"a lovely day, at any rate, eh, monsieur?"
"good enough, i suppose, good enough. a day like any other, let us hope, eh?"
"to be sure."
"for what could be more desirable than a day like every other, i ask you."
"nothing, monsieur, nothing. look here, would you like me to send the girl to find a copy of your newspaper, after she has brought your coffee and croissant?"
"why thank you, jacques, that would do very well."
jacques nodded. this was a conversation they had had many times before, for m borin's paper - neither the largest or smallest of the city's numerous dailies - was often printed late or not at all on any given day. jacques was a close student of his regular patrons' moods and peculiarities, and he knew that m borin enjoyed having the same conversations over and over - such as the one they had just had about his being "a bit early this morning".
"i hope, " m borin went on, "that the paper being late does not signify any more political unrest, of which we have had entirely too much lately."
this was another recurring theme, and jacques picked up his cue accordingly. "that would indeed be a pity, monsieur, especially as it is such a fine day."
"but perhaps not such a fine day in rome, eh? if trouble has been stirred up, i have no doubt it is the pope's doing. there are no fine or not so fine days for him, only days to make mischief."
"indeed," jacques agreed. " there is no telling what that rascal is up to." and he sighed, to further indicate his sympathy with m borin's views. m borin was a member of the green party, which is to say he was a savage anticlericalist, but in all other respects a staunch upholder of the old customs and the old laws.
"look here, " m borin held up a fat finger. "the pope and his lackeys profess to believe in heaven, do they not? and what could heaven be, but an endless progression of days one like another? are we to believe in an eternity of days, each one with some new fashion or wonder? i rather think not."
"an excellent point, monsieur," and one that jacques had heard many times before.
jacques had already had enough of m borin, and looked longingly down the alley in hope of a new customer to rescue him.
"and yet - and yet - " m borin continued, "when tranquility has finally been achieved, when solutions amenable to all have been reached by the voice of the people acting through their duly elected representatives in a free republic, will the worthy gentleman laughingly referred to as his holiness cry quits and accept that? or will he and the jesuits continue their meddling ? i put it to you. '"
"ah, monsieur, here is marie-aline - at last - with your coffee and croissant."
marie-aline, a girl of about fourteen years, quite small for her age, and with a permanent look of discontent on her catlike face, deposited a small tray on the table before m borin without a word or a bow.
jacques would have preferred that melanie, his second youngest child and one with a much more respectful mien, serve the customers, but she was needed to do the brewing and baking, occupations at which marie-aline was entirely useless.
in fact jacques, though the mildest, and despite his humoring of m borin, the most devout of men, often found himself contemplating the prospect of taking this last child of his late wife down to the river and drowning her like the kitten she so resembled. he was further encouraged in this fantasy by the virtual certainty that she was not in fact his own child.
but he kept a careful tally of these wicked thoughts and confessed them to pere jean-pierre every saturday.
now, on the bright morning which we are describing, he took a coin from his pocket and handed it to marie-aline. "look here, run up to pere francais' news kiosk and see if you can find a copy of today's belligerent for m borin. and if you can't find it there - "
"i know the drill. i know where to go."
"very well. the belligerent, mind you. the belligerent."
"i heard you the first time." and with that marie-aline skipped away down the alley, almost merrily. she had no objection to such assignments and much preferred them to being on call in the shop. and since the death of her mother she had taken more and more to risking parental wrath by taking her own good time on these errands. the mother had had no compunction about beating the child, whom she regarded as the visible punishment for her sins. but the mild mannered jacques resorted to the rod only with the most extreme provocation.
jacques watched her disappear down the alley, and shook his head. "children, these days, they don't have the same respect we did."
m borin nodded. "the jesuits. it's all the jesuits."
"quite so," jacques agreed. he could not recall or imagine marie-aline having any contact with jesuits. she probably did not know what one was.
but now his attention was diverted by the sight of a young man and a young woman approaching the cafe down the same street that marie-aline had disappeared down. the young man was somewhat shabbily dressed but carried himself with the air of a prince. and the young woman was a drab, excessively painted, almost as if to disguise her youth.
as they came closer, he recognized the young man - the young englishman from three or four days ago! the young fellow had seemed quite satisfied with his fare and with his service, but jacques had not thought to see him again and had given him no bargain on his bill.
were they coming to the cafe? indeed they were, and jacques bowed them to the small table furthest from m borin's.
"we meet again," the young man observed pleasantly, in his horrible accent. "i have been singing the praises of your fine establishment to mademoiselle here."
the girl gazed at jacques and at m borin with a mildly suspicious air.
"i can only hope to obtain monsieur's generous assessment again. what would you like? would you like a menu?" jacques was determined to fuss over them as much as possible, in order to avoid talking to and listening to m borin, and marie-aline's absence on her errand only gave him the more excuse to do so.
the day was progressing well. jacques was happy.
the young englishman seemed very pleased with the world, and with himself.
m borin, sipping his strong black coffee and staring at the painted girl, seemed quite content.
marie-aline, skipping away on her errand, was happy.
a couple of birds could be heard singing. they must have been happy.
a cat watched the birds without seeming exercised by their existence. it, too, seemed content.
only toquette, her paint beginning to fade in the morning sun as she listened to the young englishman rattle on to jacques, seemed less than happy.