Jeanette and Sofie appeared in my music room, looking very solemn. "Papa, why is Cesar brown?"
"He's brown because he is creole. He was born in Martinique, which is an island where French, Spanish, Portuguese and African people live all together. His mother's ancestors are African, and their skin is brown because it's extremely hot there. Come." We made our way to the library so we could locate Martinique and Africa in the atlas.
"They got burnt."
"No, Pickle. The dark color of their skin helps them to not get burnt. Remember how Mama is always saying to cover up and don't let the sun burn you?"
Jeanette was still troubled. "Will Miri-ange's babies be brown, too?"
"I suspect they'll be a little browner than you, but probably not so brown as their Papa. Perhaps it's like putting milk in coffee. Look, here's Africa, and where is France?"
Sofie climbed onto my knee, running her hands over the smooth, shiny pages of the atlas. Jeanette's brow crinkled as she searched for France. "There it is!" she cried. "Look how tiny it is! Africa is so big!"
"Mm. Let me show you Martinique, now," I chuckled.
They were both delighted that France was larger than Martinique. "Yay for France!"
"I like Cesar, but he's going to take Miri-ange away," Sofie grumbled.
"But he isn't taking her to Martinique. Cesar has a big house in Paris; they will be just as close as Masson and Liselotte, and we'll see them often, too," I promised her.
"They want to sleep in the same bed, too. I like having my own bed." Sofie declared.
"So do I," agreed Jeanette.
"Well, there's no accounting for grown-ups sometimes," I admitted.
As Masson's wedding day drew nearer, Christine grew more and more distracted. I had been expecting it, when the realization finally hit her that her firstborn was leaving home. I tried to give her room, yet be here if she needed me; still, I knew it was something she would have to work through on her own. For all her talk about the birds leaving the nest, Masson's leaving would be hard on her.
One evening she offered to show me the dress she'd had made for the wedding; it had been delivered two days ago and she was thrilled with how it had turned out. I read as she disappeared into her dressing room to slip it on. She called out to me that I'd have to use my imagination about her hair; she hadn't decided how to wear it, then she said nothing further. Five minutes; then ten. Granted it was a fancy dress, but still, how long could it take?
I tiptoed to the doorway of Christine's dressing room, listened, but heard nothing.
"Angel? May I help you?"
Nothing. I called again. "Christine?"
I peered inside; my wife was crumpled on the floor in an effusion of silvery-grey moiré silk, weeping silently. I rushed to her side and embraced her.
"Don't look; it's dreadful!" she wailed. "I look like a gigantic rain cloud! Oh, god, what was I thinking?"
"Christine, the color is lovely. You look nothing like a rain cloud."
"You should see me when I stand up! I'm all poufy and billowy, just like a rain cloud!"
"Alright, when you're ready to stand, I'll have a look. If you really dislike it, there's plenty of time to have another dress made, Angel, and no harm done."
"It doesn't matter; I look horrible in everything! I'm a stick! I wish I was pregnant, at least then I'd have a figure!"
"You're lovely, Angel; you've never been a stick."
"Oh no? You should see how Manon fills her dress!"
Well, I had nothing to say to that. I let her cry herself out for a few minutes. She was utterly irrational over an exquisite dress; one minute she was poufy, the next she was a stick. It had to be Masson, not the poor dressmaker's work at all. I decided I'd have a word with the boy about laying on extra hugs for the time he was still at home. Meanwhile, I did what I could to convince her of her allure.
As for myself, I was holding up remarkably well against the specter of losing two babies in rapid succession. Whenever Christine asked me why I was so calm—always with a suspicious glint in her eye—I confessed that the reality of the situation must not have fully penetrated my defenses yet. I expected to be reduced to a blubbering, heart-clutching wreck at any moment.
The daroga noticed how well I seemed to be handling things, too, so he delighted in tormenting me. "You're looking well for a man about to lose a third of his progeny."
"Shut up. I can make two more any time I want."
"Oh really? And what does Madame Rouen say to that, Don Juan?"
"Yes; she says yes before I even ask. She's putty in my hands; I'm suave, unstoppable, and—"
"Delusional in your old age," he howled.
"Do try not to split your sides, you hateful old codger. You're just jealous because you lack my 'passionate Gallic nature', as Christine calls it," I sniffed.
"Really? She says that?" He was astounded.
"Indeed she does."
"Good heavens. Obviously you're many times the man you appear to be," he marveled.
"If you behave yourself, perhaps someday I'll show you," I gloated.
"I can't do this!"
Masson was a wreck. Each time he checked himself in the mirror, he was moved to re-tie his cravat, and he was making a terrific hash of it. I glanced silently at Gustave; he rolled his eyes.
"Here, let me do it. Again. But this is it, Son. I've got to go out and join your Mother, and you and Gustave need to get up to the altar. The natives are getting restless out there. There'll be the devil to pay if you keep Liselotte waiting," I smiled.
"How many people?" he worried.
"A lot," I chuckled. "No worries; once you see your bride, everyone else will disappear," I assured him. I adjusted the muguet in his lapel, took one last look at that unruly forelock; some things never change. "You look like a bridegroom, Masson!" He laughed briefly, nervously. I placed a steadying hand on his shoulder. "You've grown into a fine man; your Mother and I are extremely proud of you."
"Thanks, Papa. I hope I can be as good a husband and father as you."
"You will. Treasure her; listen with your heart. Oh, and…" I slipped two chocolate coins into his hand. "One for you; one for Madame Rouen."
I swirled champagne on my tongue and surveyed the formal Chagny gardens, awash in color; gowns as bright as blossoms in every direction.
"Look at us, Raoul, will you; paterfamilias both, and now joined forever. Who would've imagined it?"
"Yep, and soon, fat babies with my brains and your looks…no…wait…"
"You're a disgrace. Father of the bride, drunk before sundown."
""I'm not drunk…I'm happy!"
"Come along; you'll fall off the balcony," I chuckled, shepherding him inside.
Manon met us at the threshold. "Oh dear me," she fretted.
"It's alright, Love; I've got him. I'll keep him safe and upright."
"You are a dear," she smiled, bussing my cheek. She breezed onto the balcony as I led Raoul past a sideboard groaning with sweets.
"Good idea, let's eat s'more!" he grinned, lurching toward a tray of petits fours.
"Yes; you'll be a fat, jolly grandpapa."
"I'm never going to look like a grandpapa," he huffed. "I've still got it!"
"I know you've got it; you just can't remember where you put it."
Three months later, same church; only this time it was me saying goodbye to my little girl.
Christine's hand on mine; "She's ready."
"Right," I smiled, squeezing her hand. "Christine, you're so beautiful. You've no business having a daughter old enough to marry."
"You always say the right thing. Here," she smiled, handing me a handkerchief for a change.
I knocked on the door softly. "Ready, Angeline?" I opened the door and beheld an angel. "You're breathtaking," I whispered, tearing up. "But there's just one thing…"
"What ?" she fretted, wide-eyed. I reached up behind her ear and brought my hand away with two chocolate coins.
"Papa," she smiled and tucked them into her bouquet.
I kissed each cheek and whispered, "I am so very proud of you. Be happy."
"I will," she promised.
I lowered the veil over my little girl's face. Next time I beheld her unveiled, she would be someone's wife. I drew a deep, shuddering sigh and managed a smile. "Shall we?" I offered her my arm.
"You'll always be my first love."
On Sunday afternoons, both newlywed couples came to Chagny/Rouen for dinner. It reassured Sofie tremendously to know that things worked out just as I had promised. As was my custom, I waited at the door to pluck my chubby brown grandson from his mother's arms. Erik Chretien Charbonneau was an early baby, if you will; I was only fit to be tied for a moment over it. Then I realized I'd have a brand new fat baby to cuddle and spoil, and I forgave Miri-ange and Cesar everything.
Erik and I escaped downstairs to my music room; I was beginning his musical education early. He burbled and flailed while I played.
"Remember from last week, now? Where is Middle C? Tell Grandpapa and we'll see if we can find a coin for my brilliant boy, hm?"
"Yes! Brilliant…what a clever boy! Kisses for Grandpapa, and we won't tell Nana or Mama about the chocolate, hm?"
"Tell Nana or Mama what?" Ooops; Christine descended and scooped my little man up.
"We're not finished our lesson yet, Angel." Erik began to snuffle. "Give him back, see? He wants Grandpapa."
"You may not monopolize my grandson, old man! Erik, you didn't give him chocolate! For heaven's sake, he's only three months old," she scolded.
"That's a disgrace, keeping a child from chocolate! What's wrong with chocolate? My children were raised on it, and they're magnificent!"
"Come along; dinner's ready. I'll let you take up this argument with your daughter."
I followed her upstairs, trying to think of a plausible lie for the chocolate. That's one advantage to being an old man, I can lie with impunity; people think it's adorable. Christine handed the baby to Miri-ange and tattled on me.
"Papa, no chocolate! You're impossible!" Miri-ange fussed, wiping the poor child's face.
"Bah! I've forgotten more than you'll ever know about raising fine babies! Tell them, Daroga," I hollered. The old man was deaf as a post.
"Leave me out," he grinned, happy as ever.
"Look out, here we go again," Raoul warned. "Tell us how it was back in your day, Grandpapa."
"Back in my day, I was wearing the same size trousers I'm wearing today! Hah! That shut him up!" I nodded at Masson and his little bride, on my left.
"You're a mess, Papa." My firstborn sighed, shaking his head.
"You'd better hurry up and do your duty, Son; they're getting ahead of you," I whispered conspiratorially. "Miri-ange, give my back my grandson; he sees you all the time! Have a look at this beautiful boy, you two."
"All in good time, Papa; don't rush us," Liselotte blushed. "We're young yet."
"Mm, but I'm not! I'll see a dozen babies around the Christmas tree before I go to my eternal reward!" For some reason, everyone thought that was hilarious.
Christine loaded up a plate and slipped it in front of me. Hands on my shoulders, she whispered, "Look at you, with your family all around you, my Angel. Can you believe it?"
"Don't pinch me," I laughed aloud for the sheer joy of it.