A Serial Novel

A literary experiment in judicial philosophy and historical fiction, inter alia.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Chapter 4: Reading Hands

Just and Celi sat on a bench at one of the foci of a series of horticultural ellipses: hedge, lawn, and stone. At the other focus, a nymph with sturdy runner’s legs and pelvis choked on water on days the family could afford it. Celi drummed their joined hands on the bench and sang to the nymph, “When Jacques is married, all the bells will ring. The third, the fourth, the seventh. But not the first, not the first, not the first.”

Just pulled his hand away.

“Stop it,” she said. “You are a rude boy.”

He said, “How can I tell your fortune, then, if you don’t give me back my hand?”

“Were you going to tell my fortune?”

“I was going to tell it in the way Jacques showed me how before he ran away.”

Celi spread her hand; the fingers arched delicately backwards. “Will I live a long time and have three husbands, or will someone kill me first? What is his name? What do I eat for breakfast when I am old? Is it ashes like the man who barks like a dog says? And will I like them?”

“I can’t tell your fortune by looking at your hand. That is what Jacques showed me.”

“You don’t know anything about it.”

“You don’t know why Jacques ran away,” said Just.

“I do. He told me.”

“He told everyone,” Just said scornfully.


Jacques was born the first son—the first son for fortune, the second (that was Just) for the army, and the third for the Church. But Jacques had a face for women to swoon over (discretely behind handkerchiefs) if only set martially above a uniform, a wit ready for the officer’s table—a spirit ready for anything—a soul on fire for directives from God, but ready to hold down the fort himself till then. He should have been born with an older brother or two—what a waste. When he ran, it was unclear whether he was giving himself to the army or God. In the end, both probably got a piece of him.

Of course, that is nonsense. Of course, fortune best suits handsome face, get-set-go wit, ready-aim soul. But with it all, Jacques had the sweetest nature, a nature that couldn’t live without tossing everything away.

Jacques planned to make his departure seem a routine run to the capital. But he told Just before he left (“between the two brothers”), then his mother (“dear Mama) and his father (“Papa, you see how it is”)—Celimene, the servants, Abelard, Madeline, Louise. “I can’t live like this,” he said. He didn’t know when he would come back. Or if.

His mother said he was insane. But his father said, “He must do what he will do.” He was proud that his words held so much sway with his son that his republican son could no longer live like this. Or he was afraid too, but ashamed of what Jacques would think of him. It was hard to tell. He gave a speech so beautiful everyone wept. Maybe he felt what he said he did in the speech.


When Jacques saw Heloise, he said to himself and the one who always stood at his left elbow, “God, I would like to fuck that baby.” But that didn’t mean he wanted to marry her. It didn’t even mean he particularly wanted to fuck her.

Why must everything take everything we say so seriously?

Once, while Jacques watched his bones cresting his skin and listened to parts of his body feed on other parts, he heard a voice saying, He must do what he will do.

He thought, Did I want this? It seemed extraordinary. I can’t have been the one who wanted this.


In the garden, Just sent Celi to collect some leaves. He would tell her fortune from those, he told her. But then the family was coming towards them, Madeline first, her arm on her father’s, next his mother and Jacques and Louise.

“Celi,” said Jacques and swung her to her shoulders. “Just,” he said.

Just was not speaking to him. He said, “Jacques, you are here. There were some of us who thought we would never see you again.”

Jacques smiled at his stiffness and significance.

“Not me,” said Just angrily, “But some.”

Five more words Just would give him, when they were alone, “You do not love her.”


The day before Jacques announced that he couldn’t keep living as he was living, he was melancholy and drunk. He told Just, “Maybe I will go away. Between us two brothers. I think I and a couple others could be happier anywhere that’s not here.” He asked Just, “What does one do when one loses one’s oldest son? Does one have another?”

“No,” said Just.

“Mama and Papa have another.” He cocked his fingers and pushed his lips towards Just. “You. But I ask myself all the time, what does one do when one loses one’s oldest son. One always has a second shot, right?”

“No,” said Just, who loved his brother beyond all reason, “They can’t lose their first.”

Jacques was seized with the desire to go hunting. “Don’t ask to come,” he told Just, “not today,” even though Just hadn’t.

Later that day, Just decided it was a perfect day for hunting. As if the forest isn’t big enough for both of us, he said to an indignant, inner audience. In testament to the justice of his words, he didn’t see a sign of Jacques the entire day. When it grew dark, he was still far from home, but near the hunting lodge. He approached the little hut, noting the glow of a lamp within. He tied his horse and walked the rest of the distance. He was embarrassed, maybe, for no real reason except that he didn’t know how he stood with his brother.

He heard Jacques’s voice and nearly called to him and then he heard a woman’s. And then he was embarrassed, but for Jacques he thought. He crept to the window and listened. He understood quite a bit, but not all of what he heard.

Jacques was systematically emptying the bullets from his weapons—the long hunting musket, the dueling pistols, the little toy pistol he carried at his side. The woman—Just knew her (he would love her) her name was Mme Ledoux—was pulling at Jacques’s hand. “What will you do?” she asked.

“Remember I love you, and read what I will do in your heart,” said Jacques.

“I don’t care about that right now,” she said. She wanted him to write it down for her what he promised he would do.

Jacques placed the musket and the pistols in his bag (the one bag he would take with him the next day) and didn’t look at her.

“I love you,” he said stubbornly and “Don’t write to me, don’t call on me, don’t ask after me. Everything will be alright.” He pushed her hand away and placed it on her stomach. The hand twitched.

“Is it moving?” Jacques asked. “Can I feel it?”
“No,” said Mme Ledoux, “How many times have I said you can’t touch it. It must look like my husband and not like you.”

“Then you stop worrying,” he said. “How many times have I said. Think about him.”

“Thinking of him is what makes me worry. He will kill me,” she moaned. “He will.”

“So many stupid things I have heard you say, so many silly little things, but this is the stupidest. The most charming little idea of yours,” He was not entirely convincing that he found this charming. “People don’t kill each other like that.”

“And if you do not love me anymore, maybe he should,” she tried. This was sometimes the only way she could get Jacques’ attention. “But you have to write down for me what you will do. And you will leave me,” she added. “You will leave me and never see me again.” She clutched at his hand.

Jacques pushed her away. He paced and started several times to say something and stopped. “Hold out your hand,” he said. “Look at it. Was this hand made for unhappiness? This little white hand on which so many of us have written many fine verses.”

“You have killed us all,” she said. “That is what I repeat every morning and every night. I am never bored. You. You will leave. I will not see you again.”

Jacques seemed uncomfortable. Melodrama was perhaps a legitimate reply to his gallantry, but she didn’t do it well, it seemed to him. He did not like the smell of fear on her. He didn’t understand what she wanted from him, and he was sick of the way she smelled like a stranger.

Jacques raised his hand and swore that her happiness was safe in his possession.


“You do not love her,” Just told Jacques when they were alone.

Jacques laughed. Just had been progressively ruder all day long, but failed to make him angry. “What do you want me say?” said Jacques. “Many happy marriages have been made based on nothing more than sense and solid affection.”

“Not the girl. Not Mlle Beaujeu.”

“I misunderstand you.”

“Mme Ledoux. She said she would never see you again, and she was right.”
“You knew about that, did you? You heard ordering me away so coldly. Not surprising considering how often she said it. She was so boring with ordering me never to see her again and with other things—Write down for me what you’ll do—I couldn’t tell what she wanted.”

Everyone knew about it,” said Just.

“No, they didn’t,” Jacques said thoughtfully, “and they don’t. And least I don’t think they do.”

“And now you promise to marry someone else,” Just didn’t like the way Jacques could twist and turn through a conversation that struck him as so single. “And so I say, you do not love Mme Ledoux.”

Jacques looked him up and down, and didn’t ask him what thirteen-years-old business it was of his. “No, I don’t think I do.”

“She’s not the only one who ever killed someone.”

“No, she isn’t.” Jacques gripped Just tightly above the elbow, and Just thought to be frightened. Like Heloise he noticed Jacques’s smoldering, dying eyes. (Just and Heloise were very young. I would call Jacques’s eyes simply unhappy. You’ve seen unhappy eyes. You know what they look like.) He looked pointedly at the hand and Jacques removed it. He puffed his cheeks and released the air and said. “It’s even possible she’s not the first to kill someone either.”

Just said, “You killed her husband.”

“One bullet I left in all those guns. Does it seem likely it would end up in someone’s body?”

“Yes,” said Just, who was too eager to know to wonder what he would do with this knowledge.

“It was too ridiculous,” said Jacques.

Monday, May 22, 2006


When Heloise was called to speak alone with her aunt, she knew she was in for it. She should have known earlier that morning, when Genevieve had looked at her dreamily, but with a glint of something else in her eyes, and started to speak, then stopped. Genevieve and her mother held secrets, of course, from Heloise.

It turned out that she had met a man the previous week, and that now everything was arranged. As Heloise should already have suspected, after they had met that gaggle of men. That was when Genevieve had told her (solemnly) how handsome and manly Monsieur de Orleans, in particular, had seemed to her. But he looked so young: his thoughtful smile, and thin frame. It was only his eyes, which seemed to be smoldering but were actually dying that made him seem at all old. In truth, Heloise found him to be beautiful, but of course she couldn’t say that to Genevieve, who moved too quickly over his eyes, down from his smile to his shoulders and his big, smooth hands, to notice his secret age. Heloise hadn’t the courage to ruin their game. And so she protested that he was a frail young thing, and laughingly refused to believe he was almost twice her age. But then Genevieve got quiet and hadn’t talked to her the rest of that day, or even at night, right before bed, when she was normally at her silliest and most carefree.

“A good match, an excellent man with a pedigreed family, who has agreed to take you from Paris back to the country. You needn’t object like that: I’ve seen how much you missed life in the provinces. And I thank you for indulging my Gen, but you and I both know that you’re much less silly than she. You won’t miss its empty excitement. Nor need you worry about your education. Out of respect for the piety of my sister, Father Fulbert has agreed to accompany you until you know all that a lady your age already should have learned.”

Heloise knew what a sacrifice this must be. Father Fulbert had left behind many good opportunities in order to look after her family, could no doubt have stayed on at the Sorbonne or already risen high in the ranks of an important abbey had he not been so devoted to Madame and Mademoiselle Beaujeu. Behind his reticence, Heloise knew how happy he had been when duty and inclination crossed paths, and those paths led him back to Paris, to his circle of friends and colleagues, and back to the orbit of his mentor, the Cardinal Fleury, now tutor to the young King.

Heloise had also learned enough in Paris to know that she was marrying into a very minor branch of the House of Orleans, but still it was kind of her aunt to arrange even that.

That was all Heloise knew of her husband to be: an exchange of smiles, a few words, and some bits of court intrigue. They would be married, she was told, in two months. This, she was assured, would be ample time to fill in these gaps.

After the announcement, Genevieve smiled and hugged the sobbing Heloise. “But won’t you miss me at all?” she said. And then, things were back like old between the two of them, and Genevieve said that Heloise musn’t abandon her entirely once she got her husband. She made Heloise promise to let her come along for a bit at least when she moved back to the provinces. And Heloise knew what a sacrifice this was and smiled gratefully.

Heloise went to sleep that night thinking what a ridiculous entourage they’d be: the bride and her cousin, the priest and his niece. The four of them expecting what for a welcome?


Just for his part, was not ready to welcome her, because he hadn’t been invited to participate in the plans for her arrival.

He and Celimene, had as always, been instructed not to bother the rest of the family in its deliberations. And, as always, they had obeyed the letter of the paternal law, if not its spirit. The servants adored Celi; she and Just knew they’d never tell their parents, much less Jacques, Louise or Madeline any of the mischief the babies were up to. So they waited at the threshold of the servants’ entrance for hours. And Celi made fun of Just for his dirty, scrubby knees and his rustic smell and said what a gentleman he’d someday be.

Jacques’s arrival had been delayed by a few days by inclement weather, and so they hadn’t seen him in months. When he finally walked into the room, Just couldn’t help envying him his easy, officer’s walk and his fashionable coif. And he looked more strong than ever to him, even though Celi kept on whispering how thin he looked.

They were watching a mirror on the wall opposite them. They saw Jacques walk across its surface first, and then their mother.

They heard Jacques say, “I’ll admit that she was charming,” but that was all that Just and Celi could make out, because then there were more footsteps, and Mama whispered something desperate, and Just thought she saw her grab Jacques’s arm, but the mirror was in the wrong place to be sure. And then Louise and Madeline walked in with their father, and there was a flurry of hugs and kisses. And Louise and Madeline made sure to tell Jacques how well he looked, but Papa just laughed. “Then why this cut-rate wedding?” he asked.

Just felt Jacques’s anger, felt it inside him. This was something he could always do, feel Jacques’s emotions for him, feel it more cleanly and purely than Jacques could on his own. But then he felt Celi’s hands unclenching his, and he understood why Jacques kept quiet.


Look at the Marquis de Orleans, the noble democrat! He is no despotic paterfamilias. He may be cut from the mold of the best of the Roman senators, but he looks further back to Greece. He will not exercise his prerogative to rule within the private sphere as an absolute king. He treats his children as his councilors (those who are old enough, at least). He listens to their words, he hears their objections. He responds without raising his voice. If, in the end, his decisions are final, it is because he is wise, and his decisions speak for themselves. If his reasons win out, it is because he is a master of debate and of speech.

In this case, it is decided that Heloise Beaujeu is too good a bargain to pass up on. To be sure, Jacques has his doubts. Certainly, the sentimental Marquise weeps that she wants what is best for their son. But, in the end, they agree with the Marquis and with Louise and Madeline (his noble, faithful councilors!) that his happiness must be sacrificed for familial duty. And who is to say, he reminds Jacques, that happiness will not follow from doing one's duty? The Marquis could make Jacques marry whomever he pleases, certainly. But that is not the sort of man that the Marquis is. Jacques chooses to agree.


When the family left, Just and Celi waited a few minutes more, before running as fast as they could through the dingy halls to the back of the chateau, out to the gardens where the two of them were to have been at play and where the joyous family soon would greet them.

Before they left, Celi hugged Just and told him to keep his heart quiet. Just didn’t tell Celi how easy that was to do. For the first time in his life, he felt the mastery of his emotions that his father so easily had. And now he knew his father’s secret. He learned it when he heard Jacques say to Papa: “Of course I am happy to marry Heloise. Thank you, Papa. Thank you.”

The secret was contempt.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Sound of the Fountain

The sick thud when you step and the ground moves away from you, a suck and your foot gone—that was sound Just would call the fountain of youth.

Thirteen years old, Just, and dying for love. He mooned over pictures of martyrs, their turned-up, too-white eyes, their muscular, grey-pink breasts. He tried out sonnets. He thanked God for polished surfaces to watch himself in. (He must have done more than die from love, must have: 1. Practiced his sword 2. Rode the fields 3. Worked the accounts 4. Rattled off his Latin, 5. Longed for Montaigne’s father and a village of Latin-speaking peasants to whom he could show off his own. His peasants spoke too loud and made signs with their hands, which it was not liberal nor up-to-date to call hexes.)

Just endeavored to keep near the woman he loved. He knew of a man who cut holes in portraits and spied on elegant women through the painted eyes. He’d heard of another who dressed up like an old woman and held salon, telling the girls to come closer, my dear, closer. Just stood with his ears against the wall on the other side of his mother’s chamber and listened to the women.

The woman Just loved was backwards his age (thirty-one) and named Madame Ledoux. Her eyes were dark and calm like a cow’s, the fine, blond hair along her cheeks and neck showed off by a thin layer of sweat.

This is what the men said about her: She was a widow and rich, but not happy.

This is what the women said about her: She was a murderess.

Poisoning a husband or a father was one thing. But: Mme Ledoux had a husband, which was a fine thing to have, and a lover, which was even better. But her husband was jealous, which was very inconvenient. And then she had a lover and a jealous husband and a baby. When the baby was born, the husband was away, and she so desperate to hide it. Because the baby had horns! Imagine! (Just like his father, the women laughed.) The truth (the pitiful truth) was, Mme Ledoux was much too fearful, much too silly. She worried through all her confinement and should only expect something like that would happen. If you hadn’t seen the baby yourself, and its curly little horns, it was because it had died. Mme Ledoux had rolled on it and smothered it in the night. And the upshot of it all was that her husband’s ship had been lost and he never made it home at all.

At dinners to which Mme Ledoux had to be invited, she was confined at the end of the table. Just was so close to her he could hear her chew. He could hear her swallow. Once he saw her pour something in a cup. He remembered that she was a murderess and thought of poison, but she drank it herself. He could hear the hungry suck of it in her throat (or imagined he could).

She looked at him with her tragic, contemptuous eyes and he knew she could see he loved her, and she didn’t give a fuck.

So many thirteen-year-olds would have eaten their hearts out to be an adult, to show Mme Ledoux just how old they were. This is what Just wanted: To hold out a cup to her, or drink from hers, both drink from the same cup. And whatever was in it would makes them both so young and sweet, so young, young, young his eyes filled with tears at the thought of it. What kind of child did that make him?

This was all not long before Just’s grown-up brother came home with his young wife Heloise—who Just soon vowed to give all (some of) his love for the rest of his (young, young) life.

About the time Just was dying of love, Heloise was longing to be married to an old man, mostly because she was dying of boredom.

Heloise’s mother was a widow who had never cared for society. She lived modestly in the country with her young daughter and taught her old-fashioned ways and out-of-fashion virtues. Heloise’s mother did not have much education, but the two loved to read to each other, especially the new fairy tales that should have been too fashionable for Heloise’s mother to love. The mother had always planned to take the daughter to Paris when she was a little older, but when Heloise was still a little too young, her mother caught a cold that caught hold of her lungs and Heloise became an orphan.

Heloise’s aunt took responsibility for her education—so sadly neglected—and took her back with her to Paris.

Heloise had the almond, too white eyes, so favored by Just in his martyrs, and little white teeth with little black spaces between them. The bones of her nose and cheeks were still too raw and near the skin, but Heloise’s aunt saw potential.

Heloise’s cousin, Genevieve, happy in her own round, young eyes, and young, pink cheeks, and pink, round breasts, said Yes, Heloise would definitely be a beauty and when they were both married, they would hide each other’s letters from each other’s husbands, and have so much fun. Genevieve was sentimental about her orphaned cousin and solicitous of her happiness.

She took her to see a giraffe. Their chaperone had to be coaxed—just a little because everyone was mad to see the beast.

“It is ravishing” pronounced Genevieve. “The giraffe. Do you see how they have painted it so cunning in fashionable patterns? I am ravished with it.”

Heloise remembered what she had once read out to her mother, what they had both coped into their little books, “And each creature with the just proportions of its kind, of bone and of muscle and of nature.” The giraffe was a beast stretched on the scale between animal and angel. Heloise pronounced herself ravished with it too.

The menagerie was thick with the smell of all the animals ever in it and of all the people ever curious to see them and of all the things the people had rubbed on themselves before going out. In short, it smelled and Genevieve pressed her handkerchief against her face.

In a cage behind them, a tiger growled and Genevieve shrieked, and turned, and shivered deliciously. “Do you see him,” she said, “And his wicked eyes. He would eat us as soon as look at us.” (The tiger did not look at them; it turned around and around as much as it could.)

Genevieve crushed the handkerchief tighter against her mouth. “Do you see him?”

“I can’t hear you,” Heloise said angrily, “Take that away from your mouth.” She was having a harder and harder time distinguishing words when she couldn’t watch people’s mouths.

But for the most part, Genevieve leaned in so close and confidential when she talked, whispered so chummily in Heloise’s ears, it was very easy to love her.

Sometimes Heloise dreamt of drowning in a sound, and not one that resembled the growl of the tiger, something else. She should have died of boredom when she was living with her mother in the country (she should have died in the country with her mother and not be living here), but she only felt it now.

Heloise dreamed of her home and realized she didn’t want it either. She wanted to be Anywhere-That-Was-Not-Here.

Genevieve said soon they could be married, here was a game: they would both point out to each other the young men they would best like to be their husbands, they would say nothing, just point with their lips and the other would know what she meant, and Heloise could go first. Heloise said that she wanted to marry an old man. (The truth was she was afraid of selecting someone young. It is so easy, so natural to commit to someone who will die soon.)

Genevieve said, “And what if you have a baby, and he is dead! An old man.”

Heloise shrugged. Her mother had had a little baby once, her baby sister, and, if she remembered right, it had made both of them very happy as long as it had lived.

Genevieve shrugged too and said, If that would make her cousin happy.

After that, whenever they happened to be able to catch sight of men, Genevieve would point out their old features for Heloise. “You see that one is young, but he has a big nose.” “That one has a bald spot on the back of his head.” “That one is stooped, and that one will snore.” “That one is missing a hand.”

Almost everyone had something old about him.

Genevieve’s old feature was her dead tooth. Heloise’s was the peach-white fuzz on the top of her ears.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Chapter One: Rumors Swirl in Paris

When the official confirmation of the death of Justice, Marquis de Orleans, finally made its way to Paris, it was too late to quell the rumors that he had actually escaped death once again. Still, the basic features of the story seemed to confirm what rumor had been saying for months: that, rather than returning to Paris after somehow eluding the minders whom the King had appointed to make his “retirement” to island life comfortable, he had gone onto the mainland of the New World; that, while there, he was betrayed by a man of God; and that he died proclaiming his continued loyalty to the regime to-come.
But the official news did not resolve certain basic questions: how he had gotten off the island at all, who this man of God was (there were many obvious candidates); and, more importantly, why Just had not immediately returned to Paris, where his return would have been greeted with joy. Indeed, people grumbled, it could very well have forced the King to capitulate to many of Just’s demands, if it did not simply lead to outright revolution. Some insisted that he had gone in search of the Fountain of Youth, to bring word of it back to Paris, to give lie to the myth that there was not enough for all. Others said that he had gone in search of a new homeland for his followers. (Rumor tends to be optimistic: but many cynics who heard these fantastical claims shook their head and noted that he too had forsaken the people of France). Given all these inconsistencies and unresolved questions and, given the superhuman powers that many of the people ascribed to the Marquis, more than a few people refused to believe, absent a corpse, that he had really died.
Still, absent a corpse, his friends mourned his death. He was, of course mourned most visibly and vocally by Heloise Beaujeu and Abelard Sarrasine. Whatever tears they shed in private, in public they predictably insisted that the only proper way to mourn the Marquis was to continue to further the cause of the regime to-come. Still, others found other ways to mourn his loss. For example, the day after learning of his death, Juliette Fulbert acquiesced to her uncle, the most respected Cure Fulbert, agreeing to answer the call of God and join a convent, as he had long urged. But once she was safely wrapped in the walls of the convent, she shirked her work, and refused to leave her cell. The sisters, who had known her since she was a child went to console her. But she needed no consoling. She did not weep, nor was she unkind to the sisters. She listened to their entreaties and questions sympathetically, and, in her private language, communicated her contentment. Even if she could have spoken, what more could she have said? What could she have said that would erase her debt to the uncle who had always been like a father to her? And what words could she really have spoken that would have reconciled the Cure to the Marquis?