In 1876, Louise St Quentin was sixteen. She was an orphan and the rich owner of a huge estate. Her future seemed all mapped out; a marriage of convenience would be arranged for her so that she would have someone to help her manage her estate. But Louise had the rather unfortunate tendency of listening to her heart rather than her reason.
The end of the nineteenth century was terribly exciting, and Louise wanted to discover everything – the adventure lying at the end of the railway track, romantic music, the modern cuisine in the new Parisian restaurants, and impressionist painting. Was her artistic, cultural and above all sensual upbringing going to lead the young girl to her ruin or to love? A native of the Selle valley, would Louise find the grass greener on the other side of the world?
It was so exciting when, after sending emails to each other for a couple of weeks, Gabrielle Dubois contacted me on Mothering Sunday to tell me that she had chosen me to translate the first volume of her Louise Saint Quentin saga Mistress Mine (Sous les Eucalyptus in French). It was a wonderful, totally unexpected mothering day present. After teaching English literature and translation in a French university for twenty years, here I was confronted with a real challenge – and some challenge! Such simple things at first sight as Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle turned out to be amazingly difficult to translate, as ways of addressing people at different periods in time, in different social classes and in different countries are not the same and not only is the novel is set in the 19th century but the heroine, Louise, travels all over the world! The fact the novel is set in the 19th century also creates numerous other difficulties of a more technical nature. For example, it would have been so simple if young girls had worn tee shirts and jeans at the time but this was far from being the case. They wore very sophisticated, elaborate clothes, especially in the upper-class circles which Louise moves around in, and Gabrielle Dubois obviously studied the fashion of the time in detail. In fact the whole novel is extremely well documented.
The novel, however, was a real pleasure to translate as it is so pleasant to read. The reader can’t help getting attached to the heroine and all the men who cross her path during her travels. Louise Saint Quentin not only becomes their much desired “Mistress Mine” but she is above all her own “Mistress Mine” as she has to learn all about life and how to fend for herself from a very early age, something unusual for a girl at the time. The numerous, often pithy, dialogues throughout the novel show her personality and how it evolves. They bring both Louise and the other characters to life and together with all the little, well-observed details, create “a reality effect”. In a word, Mistress Mine is a good read as we are drawn into the novel from the start and find it hard to put down. Although we are rather sad to get to the end, we know there are other volumes of the saga in store and we can’t wait to read them as we know very well that Louise’s journey through life is in its early stages and that Mistress Mine is just the beginning.
“… Rue Auguste Comte, Monsieur Meyer’s butler said:
‘Please come in. Who shall I announce?’
‘Louise… Louise St Quentin.’
The young girl didn’t realize straight away that she was being watched. She had drawn closer to the picture of the ballerinas in tutus and was reading the signature: Degas. From the doorway leading into the private apartment, a man was staring at her at leisure.
He was very elegant in his beautifully cut suit made of high quality cloth. Louise thought he was probably around forty. He was tall and slim, had a fine face with regular features and his dark blond hair was growing grey at the temples. However, it was above all his delicate, long-fingered hands which had attracted the young girl’s attention. On the Moulin-sur-la-Selle estate, the men had thick hands with nails that were often broken and dirty because of their work.
As for Karl Meyer, he was also studying Louise. The young girl was captivatingly beautiful. Very dark, with deep black eyes and a soft, fair, amber-coloured complexion in a century where beauty was to do with being pale. But this hint of Spanish exoticism which came from Louise’s maternal ancestors, and which made her so different to him, attracted him irresistibly.
After the terrible flooding of the Seine in March, and the snow which had fallen so heavily in April that the branches of the trees in the Luxembourg Gardens opposite had broken under the weight, Louise’s sunny complexion warmed Karl Meyer’s heart. The vibrant sounds of the Spanish guitar of Julian Arcas playing a Fantasy rang in his ears. Of course he found the young girl’s dress really badly made for his Parisian taste, and the way it was cut, which he found completely lacking in refinement, went against his aesthetic dogma. But he also observed that, unlike all the other girls from the provinces who tended to do too much, Louise had chosen a simple model and had not, by her choice, shown any lack of taste.
This complete lack of artifice made the girl as appealing in his eyes as a pearl in an ugly oyster shell. Karl Meyer decided immediately to remove this pearl from its shell and to turn it into the most beautiful jewel in Paris and to be the box in which it was kept.
His steel grey eyes were shining with pleasure like those of Pâlichon the baker’s Siamese cat when he was watching you and purring with content near the oven.
‘Good morning Mademoiselle, what can I do for you?’
‘Good morning sir. Please forgive me for not having told you I was coming. I’m looking for Monsieur Victor Meyer,’ Louise replied curtseying low and gracefully “like a duchess”, as Marguerite had taught her to do when she went to see her father. Deep inside, Karl Meyer found this old-fashioned, ridiculous balancing act very funny. In these modern times, just lowering your head slightly was quite enough.
‘My son? What do you want to see him for?’
Louise couldn’t help letting out a sigh of satisfaction when she understood that this middle-aged man was not Georges’ friend but his friend’s father. Monsieur Meyer smiled kindly at her lack of restraint.
‘I’m sorry to be a nuisance, sir. Here is the story. I knew your son was a friend of my brother’s and, well, it’s a bit difficult to explain.’
‘A nice young lady like you doesn’t need to apologize. What’s your brother’s name?’
‘Yes, I’m sorry, Monsieur Georges St Quentin.’
‘Georges! I’m the one to apologize, Mademoiselle St Quentin. Well indeed, I hadn’t made the connection. You don’t look like him very much and it’s true that I haven’t seen Georges for many years now. How is he?’
Louise thought about Marinette and Jules who were waiting with the hansom cab.
‘You seem preoccupied; can I help you in any way Mademoiselle?’
Louise hesitated, but she had come to the right place as this man knew Georges. She started to explain:
‘I’ve come straight from Beauvais by train and my chambermaid is waiting outside near the hansom cab with Jules, and…’
‘Georges’ dear little sister, this is what we’re going to do. I’m going to send Gaston to tell the hansom cab to go away and to bring your servants in and give them something to eat and drink in the kitchen. Meanwhile, we will have all the time you need to tell me about the reason for your visit.’
How nice it was to hear that this man was going to take over. Louise was tired and a bit disorientated after her journey. Monsieur Meyer was after all Georges’ friend’s father and couldn’t be someone bad. She let him get on with things.
After taking Louise’s coat and hat, a chambermaid showed her into the drawing room which was more refined than anything she had ever seen.
Yet it was true, she said to herself, that she had never seen another drawing room than her own. There were a few comfortable-looking armchairs just waiting to be sat in, as well as a sweet little Napoléon III sofa covered in gold velvet, but she didn’t dare sit down.
The door opened and in came Monsieur Meyer, who smiled at her.
‘The hansom cab has been sent away, your trunk has been brought in and your servants are having something to eat and drink in the kitchen. It’s time we thought about ourselves a bit, don’t you think, Mademoiselle? I’ve taken the initiative to ask Anna to bring us some tea and a few biscuits. Is that alright with you?’
Louise wasn’t used to having this sort of attention paid to her and she blushed. Monsieur Meyer smiled at her.
‘So I take it that your answer is yes.’
Anna came into the drawing room.
‘Put the tray down Anna, thank you, I’ll serve.’
He invited Louise to sit down on the pretty little sofa. She sat down at one end and Monsieur Meyer came and sat down next to her. The young girl wasn’t used to company, especially that of a man sitting so close to her.
‘How do you like your tea, Mademoiselle Louise? May I call you Louise?’
‘Of course you may sir.’
‘Do you take milk and sugar?’
To tell the truth, she had never had any tea before; at the farm she drank chicory. Louise looked as if she knew what she wanted and replied:
‘Neither thank you sir.’
Monsieur Meyer smiled again. On the defensive, Louise asked:
‘Why are you smiling?’
‘I remember that your brother Georges also asked for black tea the first time.’
Her disgusted look when she swallowed her first mouthful of tea made it clear to Monsieur Meyer that Louise had never drunk any before, but he was careful not to smile this time.
‘Now tell me, Mademoiselle, why you want to see my son Victor?’
Louise had never spoken to anyone before about her family and she didn’t know where to begin. Monsieur Meyer realized this and made her feel at ease.
‘I’ll tell you how I got to know your brother. My son Victor met Georges at boarding school. They were friends from the age of fourteen until the age of seventeen or eighteen, I can’t remember exactly. Georges spent all his holidays with us. I didn’t mind as I work a lot and I couldn’t spend much time with my son, so both of them got into the usual boyish mischief during those holidays. Georges didn’t say much about his family, but he was an intelligent, well-brought up boy and was good company. I remember that he had great ambitions for his future, but I don’t know what came of this as I haven’t seen him for about five or six years. But you’re going to be able to give me some news of him I imagine.’
‘And what about your son? What has happened to him?’
‘When you want something, you don’t waste any time, do you?’
‘I like that’, Karl Meyer assured her with a smile on his face. When he finished studying, Victor left to join his mother who has been treating her asthma in Italy, or so she says, for years. Yes, in fact Georges went there with him.
Victor now lives in Germany and writes to me regularly. When he comes to London he always comes to see me. We’re on good terms both of us, and we spend Christmas together.’
‘And where’s your son now?’
Karl Meyer put his hand on Louise’s gloved hand in a protective way. The young girl admired this hand once again. Unlike Joseph’s or the labourers’ hands, it was neither thick nor damaged and his fingers were long and had not the slightest trace of dirt under the nails. It was a fine, well-cared for hand but because of the way it pressed hers, she felt the fingers were strong. She drew her hand away.
‘I’m about to tell you Mademoiselle. Until you arrived I had forgotten all about Georges, because in fact not even Victor has had any news of his friend since he boarded a boat in Genoa.’
‘A boat?’ Louise asked getting up quickly. ‘What boat? What for? To go where?’
All this conversation had been for nothing. All her hopes had flown away. Where was she going to find Georges? These questions kept going round and round in her head non-stop.
‘I must go,’ she said all of a sudden.
Monsieur Meyer had got up too. Without asking for her permission, he took Louise’s hands in his, fondled them and said softly in her ear, his voice sounding like some sweet melody.
‘Louise, pretty Louise, tell me what’s wrong. I won’t let you leave in that state.’
The young girl felt her bosom being crushed gently against Monsieur Meyer’s chest. He was holding her firmly in his arms, more firmly than allowed by normal etiquette, she thought, even if she only had a very vague idea about what etiquette was. He went on:
‘Now, now, we’re going to sit down again. I’ve told you all I know; now it’s your turn. I’m listening.’
Louise sat down again, obediently. How easy it was to let oneself be guided for once. Karl Meyer insisted with his melodious voice:
‘Don’t you have news of your brother any more, Mademoiselle? When did that start?’
‘In fact, it’s always been the case - Georges never wanted me to be his sister.’
Louise put her hand over her mouth immediately but it was too late, she had confided in this man who she had just met, a complete stranger.
‘Don’t be angry with yourself,’ he said to her, ‘it does you good to talk. Besides, you don’t seem to be the sort of person to speak too much. I‘m right, aren’t I?’
‘It’s really because I haven’t had the opportunity until now, and, Monsieur, it’s in front of you that I’m beginning to talk about everything. I’m so sorry.’
‘But you haven’t told me anything yet, Mademoiselle St Quentin, I’m listening.’
‘My mother died giving birth to me when Georges was only eight.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘He went off to boarding school, it was his decision, and he has hardly ever come home since then. But you, of all people, should know that.’
Karl Meyer was touched by Louise’s candour. She went on:
‘Our father fell into a state of … sadness on the death of his wife and he himself died not long ago. The estate was left entirely to Georges. I have to tell him about this.’
Louise heaved a huge sigh like a young child after it had been upset by something. She didn’t know what to say any more, but Monsieur Meyer remained silent, so she finally went on:
‘I realize now that I must seem very stupid and annoying to you coming to see you without telling you in advance, then asking you questions and bothering you with stories of my family. Please forgive me.’
She got up and looked around the lovely drawing-room for the last time.
‘I’m going home sir, thank you so much and …’
‘Mademoiselle St Quentin’, he said firmly, ‘I’m not going to let you leave like that; it’s quite out of the question. I’ve already told you so.’
He took her hand again and drew her onto the sofa. Karl Meyer was attracted by Louise’s soft, clear voice and her simple, direct way of speaking, without any pretence.
‘I feel as if I owe you some kind of debt, Mademoiselle.’
Louise looked up at him with a surprised expression on her face. Karl went on:
‘I was quite happy to have Georges in the house for all these years, without ever wondering why he didn’t go home to his family any more. I knew that he had lost his mother, and as for your father, your brother remained very vague about him, saying that he wasn’t a bad sort but that he didn’t really know if his son was at home with him or not. However, I didn’t even know you existed, Mademoiselle, as your brother never mentioned you. I’m so sorry.’
If Louise had found the courage a moment ago to get up and go, she no longer had it. So, for her brother she didn’t exist; her father had never felt any interest whatsoever in her, had had no remorse at all, not even before dying. She didn’t belong to Marguerite and Joseph’s family either. Here in this drawing-room, in Paris, at this stranger’s house, she felt less alone than she felt at her father’s.
Monsieur Meyer moved on the sofa so as to almost face Louise; their knees touched.
‘Louise, look at me. Look at me!’ he insisted gently.
She looked up towards him, with her big, coal-black eyes, her straight nose and her pretty soft lips.
‘We’ll find a solution, Mademoiselle, but it’s late. I’m going to have a room prepared for you, and Gaston will find somewhere for your servants.’
Louise came to herself again.
‘It’s very kind of you, Monsieur Meyer, but I had planned to find a hotel. That will be fine, thank you.’
Monsieur Meyer became authoritarian.
‘It’s out of the question Mademoiselle St Quentin. My private house is huge; you’ll have a key for your door and your chambermaid can stay with you for the night, if you so wish, if that is what worries you. I don’t mean to bother you!’
‘I don’t want to annoy you. I’m not afraid of you!’
‘What a kind remark. Thank you for that sign of confidence!’
Louise, mortified, didn’t know how to make amends.
The art of conversation wasn’t inborn, and she tried to remember the basic tenets she had read in “A Handbook on Manners for Children”, but this book written in another century was destined to educate little children, and she could remember nothing that would be of any use to her for a conversation between adults.
To sum up, it said you should always be pleasant to others and be good-natured. In theory that seemed simple but in practice the young girl realized that it needed more experience than she had had.
Monsieur Meyer rang and his housekeeper, Anna, appeared barely a few seconds later.
‘Anna, please would you have Mademoiselle St Quentin’s trunk taken up to the room where her brother Georges used to sleep and get the bed ready for her.
Anna stared wide-eyed.
‘Don’t stand there petrified, please. Take Mademoiselle up there and send her her chambermaid to help her get ready for dinner.’
Then Monsieur Meyer turned towards Louise and said:
‘Take your time, Mademoiselle. We’ll dine in an hour. I’ve got a bit of business to see to before, if I may.’
He took her hand, lifted it to his mouth and touched it lightly with his lips; then he left the drawing-room…”