Ah, what is it that rouses me now from my old woman’s reverie? Who is it that silently opens the door to my sunny sick room and creeps inside, trailed by the two housecats?
Don’t I see you there, darling granddaughter, slumping shyly into the bedside chair with a book purloined from my library in your hand, just as you used to do as a child fifteen years ago? But you have grown out of your bare feet and careless braids! Were it not for the familiar way that Yseult and Marmelade press themselves against you, each purring and preening in competition for the choice spot on your lap, I might not have recognized this handsome, upright young woman who visits me!
But what are you holding out to me? Can it be that you wish to revive the silly game of your childhood? A game invented, I admit now, to get you out from under my feet! If only for as long as it took for you to run to the library (your bare soles slapping the wood of the hallway floor with a clop-clap-clop-clap sound that makes me smile even now when I think of it) and clamber up, monkey-style, upon the desk or reading chair and reach your sunburned arm out across the shelves and fetch back the oldest or thickest or highest or dullest book in the library that you could find, depending upon what mission I had set you on.
And, inevitably, I could not help myself. I would cry, “Ah, Ouida!” Or I would smile fondly at Colette’s Claudine, or laugh embarrassed at L’Île des Pingouins. Not because of anything in the books’ contents, but because of some memory that the sight of each volume raised inside of me.
For my library is not one of those sterile showpieces, assembled by interior decorators for pompous professional men, the books bought and paid so many francs per meter of shelves filled, chosen with an eye to the impressiveness of the binding and the brightness of the gilt lettering—
No, there is some memory of mine in every book of my library. Memories of the season in which they were acquired, or the hands through which they passed to mine, or of the reading, or of not reading—as the case may be. But at least each volume was selected and placed there by me!
And so, inevitably, I would tell you as much of the little life memory as it befitted you to know at whatever age you were at the time. You knew, of course, that I held back sometimes? Only when your mother would not have been pleased with me if I had told you more!
But of course you knew. Why else would you hand me Rousseau’s Confessions now? The book that you brought to me so often when you were a child that I had grown almost immune to its memories. So that I could almost honestly shrug and say, “It suggests nothing to me.”
Almost! Ha, hardly! We both knew it was a lie!
For indeed, his postcard portrait is still inside. His photograph that I buried there in a pique fifty years ago, when I gave up on both him and Rousseau together in disgust. Yes, I will tell you at last who he is. No, he was not a lover. He was much older than I was, in fact. And famous! I saw him many times in my career as a journalist, but I never knew him personally.
But I was there, when he died. When he paid for his crimes. Oh, all these years later, it sounds like a melodramatic fairy tale! Aristide Moncrief, executed by guillotine!
It happened in 1964, in a small town along the Rhône, not far from Annecy. Surely you have read the name already on the back of the postcard. Aristide Moncrief—I don’t suppose that means anything to you?
No? What an irony that is! That in the short span of fifty years, he should have faded so utterly into obscurity again. This man, whose name was once on the lips of every intelligent person in France!
“What do you think of Moncrief? Is he guilty or not?”
No one believed it, of course. No one except his political enemies. And because of that, there were some who said at the time that he went to his end romantically, or even heroically. But knowing what I know, I cannot agree with them. But I am getting ahead of myself!