Around the fire, earlier today, our chairs so close together that we were almost elbow to elbow, we were saying how wretched it is to survive in the midst of ruins. "If you survive, it means you're alive," said one of my friends, but she uttered these words so inaudibly that it was hard to put much faith in them . . . Though the afternoon had barely ended, darkness was falling. It was time for my guests to make their way home. And just then, a group of schoolchildren came into the courtyard to sing. Their voices were extraordinarily clear, rising up with the same strength and joy that they put into their running, their ice-skating . . .
Alone once more, I opened my last present. It was wrapped in so many layers of paper that at first I thought there was nothing else: just colored papers laid one on top of the other. But when I came to the little silver box, it opened up to reveal a marvel. I had been offered a miracle in the form of a gift: a pendant set in enamel, on which was painted in miniature an eye of blue: blazing blue, almost turquoise, of gemlike brilliance, the pupil as though bedewed with the merest hint of moistness. I closed the palm of my hand over the treasure, and let the blue of her eyes bring back the Queen's entire face, her face as I knew it . . .
This ban on names is one of the pacts binding our society of survivors, and when I am with others I respect the pact. But when I am alone with myself, why should I be afraid of words or of the ghosts they summon up or of the unknown with which they sometimes bring us face-to-face? True, in my case the ghosts fill the entire stage, during my waking life as they do in my dreams, whether these be changing or recurrent. Thus, for example, what I call my "Dream of the Grand Stairway." It has variations--in particular, sometimes the faces are farther away than other times--but for the most part, it's always the same dream: stationed at intervals on broad steps, stand various members of the Royal Court. Their magnificent apparel has a kind of still quality that hampers movement. Some are leaning on canes, others not. There are no groups. Each individual is isolated, set slightly apart from the next. All, however, are outlined with perfect clarity. They stand there, on the rim of nothing. "The Dream of the Grand Stairway" haunts me. I feel as though the people in the dream are waiting for me; mute, invisible, never very far away--that they are my truth, whereas the handful of survivors with whom I associate are merely illusion. Under their scrutiny I become uncomfortable. I seek distractions: embroidery work, writing letters, reading newspapers, books, every sort of publication in French that comes my way, but they will not loosen their viselike grip. They press down upon me with all the weight of their nonbeing. I have become accustomed to "the Dream of the Grand Stairway," but the dissatisfied feeling that it brings with it remains unappeased, for the faces in the dream, while recognizable, are not completely so. I am quite sure that I have known them but am unable to put a name to them.
I lived for a time at Versailles, where I was a reader to Queen Marie-Antoinette, assistant reader, I should say. It was a very minor office, made even less significant by the fact that the Queen had little taste for reading. My patron, Monsieur de Montdragon, Steward Ordinary to the Court, though he welcomed me with the greatest kindness, had been careful to make that clear. It was a late December day, a midwinter day like today, but with no snow. The daylight had a sharp, almost metallic quality. The trees with their dark trunks stood out against a very blue sky. At the château, to venture into the gaps separating the fireplaces--and the smoke-filled, blinding, choking zones their fires produced--was to become paralyzed inside a block of ice. You had to keep moving; otherwise you might well perish. Swathed in his wolfskin pelisse, Monsieur de Montdragon was putting me through an examination. From my first response, though I spoke timidly and could not help moving my fingers to keep them from going numb with cold, he had judged me fit for my duties. "You have a fine voice," he had said to me, "rather low-pitched and not obtrusive." And a bit later, observing my discomfort, he had added: "Go to it, my dear madam, clap your hands together; that's a more straightforward, effective way to get them warm." So during our interview, noiselessly, I had applauded. My patron had informed me what my duties would be, in my capacity as assistant reader to the Queen. "To sum up, I would say that, by and large, there aren't any." Then, in sudden anxiety, he had asked me: "But you can read, I trust? Mind you, when I consider how long it may be, before ever the Queen sends for you, there is ample time for you to learn; and even should she discover you to be unlettered, I am sure she would not take it amiss. Her Majesty's benevolence to all her familiars is boundless. You cannot conceive how far, in her Household, she carries the virtue of patience. As for the precise details of your obligations, Madame de Neuilly, Reader to the Queen, will explain them to you . . . if it occurs to her, for when she comes to Versailles, she is, as you can well imagine, taken up with visits, solicitations . . ." I could well imagine nothing whatsoever. My eyes and mind were quite dazzled with all the riches that surrounded me. I felt as though I had stepped into the kingdom of Beauty. I thanked Monsieur de Montdragon; he brought the interview to an end, and without pausing to reflect what an utterly unfamiliar world Versailles might be for a newcomer, he left me there in that little private room hung with yellow silk. Overcome by timidity and at the same time exhilarated by the unbelievable splendor that I sensed all about me, I remained for a time, seated on a couch, waiting. Finally I found the courage to leave the little room and walk a few steps; I stopped at a glass door that opened onto an immense gallery. My earlier impression, of having been transported into a château all of gold and precious stones, persisted. If someone had told me that the slate roof-tiles of the château at Versailles were in reality slabs of onyx, I would have believed it . . .
From Farewell My Queen by Chantal Thomas. Copyright Chantal Thomas 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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