Okay…I don’t have the slightest idea how long it’s going to take for this story to take shape. Or how surreal it’s going to get. These few pages will take you into the landscape, Claire Aubuchon’s landscape, so I need to tell you a little about the girl, the real girl behind this story – who’s name was, well, Claire. You’ve read fragments of Claire in Vista Dome, but this will be another side of her story. And this is a draft…and I’m sure future revisions will alter the landscape a little…
I met her in first grade. To those of you outside the US, that means we met when we were about six or seven years old, and in a way she was my first experience with the emotion “love”…
Her parents were beyond wealthy, and they appreciated music and literature in a way that most people today would find simply unusual. They endowed chairs at universities, and concert halls are named after their generosity. And while they inculcated artistic values in their children, it was in Claire that those values flourished most vibrantly. Or, perhaps, toxically would be a better choice of word.
We spent a lot of time together, our families. Weekends and things like that, and of course, as we were the same age we spent a lot of time at school together. My father’s interests were flying and medicine, not music, so it was Claire who introduced me to those other worlds. It was she who first taught me to play the piano, and she who talked me into playing the viola, then the bass.
She was the first girl I ever kissed.
If I was prone to saying such things, I’d admit she was the first girl I fell in love with. Since I’m not, let’s just say we were close and leave it at that.
She was sent away to a different boarding school than I, so in high school we drifted apart, then one night, when I was flying from Dallas to San Francisco, returning to college at the end of Christmas break, I bumped into her while boarding an American 707. She was at Stanford, and she appeared miserable, though somehow we managed to talk all the way from Texas to California that night, and when we got to SF and walked to the baggage claim, we promised to meet up soon and get to know one another – again.
She then, apparently, went to the Mark Hopkins Hotel, after we went our separate ways, and she jumped from a window there – from, I think, the seventeenth floor.
I’ll never know why, of course. Not a clue…
The contours of this story, the arc, if you will, is kind of an exercise in “what might have been, if only…” – but layers are wrapped up in the Claire I knew, too, and the cloaks she used to hide behind.
The Deep End of Your Dreams
I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.
17 April, 1912
She stood at the rail, looking down into the passing sea.
New York lay somewhere ahead, not quite another day ahead; the Titanic lay somewhere in the belly of the sea, now two days gone into a receding past. Her father was, she assumed, still onboard, down there in the darkness. Waiting.
She was alone now. Seven years old and all alone in the world. And yet, she was not frightened. Little things like death bothered her not at all, not in the least.
No, the world had risen up and taken everything she knew – her father chief among those things – and she had watched it all slip beneath the sea. Gone, in an instant. Nothing remained but the panic of getting to the boats, then the realization that her father wasn’t going to be by her side going forward.
She’d watched him standing at that other rail, their eyes locked-on one another’s as the distance between them grew insurmountable, and she’d tried to follow him as he moved aft – as the great ship settled by the bow. Amidst all the moaning and tears of the women around her, she’d watched in silence as the Titanic began it’s final journey, and then she’d turned inward, tried to come to terms with this new life.
Nothing is permanent, she realized in those first sundered moments. Nothing lasts forever.
Not even love.
“You’re alone, child?” a kindly old man asked. He seemed short and fat, then she realized it was his topcoat. Yet as she stared at the man’s face she smiled, for she had never seen such a colossal mustache and the man looked like a walrus.
She nodded her head, tried not to laugh.
“Marie! Come here this instant!”
A maid of some sort scurried to the old man’s side. “Sir?”
“Find Mrs Wilkinson, would you? And bring a blanket from our stateroom.”
“Yes, sir,” the cowed girl said, before curtsying and scurrying away.
The old man turned back to the little girl, his face now a contorted grimace of concern. “Were your parents aboard the Titanic?”
She nodded her head again. “My father was.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“She died, two years ago.”
“You have no other family?”
She shook her head.
“Well, blast it all,” the old man said, his eyes watering. “What’s to become of you?”
That did it. Something inside her broke and she started to cry – and the sight tore into the old man like nothing he’d ever experienced before. He knelt and held on to her as if she was his own daughter…and he did so until Marie, the maid, returned with a blanket.
“The Missus will be here shortly, sir,” the girl said, frowning at the sight of the old man down on his knees like that. It was all just so – undignified!
And when Emily Wilkinson twaddled up, blathering on about the chill in the air, Rupert Wilkinson stood and turned to his wife: “See here, Emily…it’s April, and this is the North Atlantic. It’s supposed to be cool out!”
“This is not cool, Rupert. It’s positively arctic out here!”
“Blast you, woman!” he said, pointing off the starboard rail. “That’s Long Island over there, not the North Pole! Pull yourself together!”
And so, of course, Emily huffed up. “You wanted to see me about something?”
So Rupert huffed up too. “Yes. This girl is off the Titanic and she’s all alone. I mean, all alone in the world. What are we going to do about that?”
The old woman looked at the girl – and her heart melted too. “Oh, you poor dear,” she said, then one eyebrow arched up and she looked at her husband of thirty years. “And just what do you have in mind now, Rupert Wilkinson?”
“If she’s alone it’s our duty to help.”
“OUR duty? How did you come to THAT conclusion, dearest?”
“Do you see anyone stepping forward to help the girl right now?”
“Surely there will be someone for her in New York…?” Emily said, her voice on edge now. She was used to her husband’s larkish misadventures, but this was altogether something else again. “Darling, what’s your name?”
“Are you from France?” Rupert asked.
Claire shook her head. “No, but Daddy worked there.”
“And what did your father do?”
“I don’t know exactly, but he worked in the embassy. We live so close he can walk.”
“Well, I know Phil Knox, so we’ll get to the bottom of this in short order.”
“Who’s Phil Knox?” Emily asked.
“He’s the Secretary of State,” Claire said, a little too condescendingly.
“He sure is,” Rupert said, not a little impressed. “And you don’t know what your father did in Paris?”
“No,” Claire said, “it was a secret.”
“Oh, my,” Rupert sighed, “I see. Well, we need to find you some new clothes. Emily? Would you and Marie be so kind as to take Miss Claire to the shop? See if they might have something more becoming for her to wear when we arrive? I think I’ll head up to the wireless office, see if I have any new messages…”
After a night at the Waldorf, the Wilkinson entourage boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Fast Express – after receiving assurances from Cunard that they would indeed have space on the Lusitania’s next sailing for Cherbourg – as they’d decided to carry little Claire to Washington, if only to guarantee her well-being.
Claire had reverted to type in the absence of her father; she had, in other words, pulled out a book and opened it to the page where she had last left off, and Rupert watched her every movement now, fascinated by the creature’s sure movements. At times she appeared listlessly dull and flat, but then he would watch her eyes. They were full of curiosity, sweeping here and there, taking everything in, and as he’d seen her reading last night he wondered what interested her.
“I don’t recognize that script,” he said, looking at the book’s cover. “What are you reading.”
“It’s called Resurrection. It’s in Russian.”
“You read Russian?”
“English, too, I assume? Anything else?”
“French and German. I learned French first.”
“You can read all those languages?”
She nodded her head as she looked up from the book. “My father could read and write seven languages, but he didn’t count Latin.”
“Oh? Can you speak Latin?”
“Of course. But not as well as Father.”
“That book there…? Who’s it by?”
“I’m not sure I know the man. Is he famous?”
“I think so.”
“Well, don’t let me disturb you,” Rupert said, and when her eyes dropped back to the book he looked to Emily – who had watched the exchange with something approaching pure wonder in her eyes.
Emily had been to college and studied literature – though that had been decades ago – yet she grasped what the girl’s intellect must truly be…staggering, if, that is, she wasn’t exaggerating. Watching her now, the girl turned a page, on average, in less than twenty seconds – which was shocking enough for a seven year old – but she was reading in Tolstoy’s native language, not her own.
“Claire,” she asked, hating to interrupt her again, “I’ve not read that work. What’s it about?”
“About a man’s search for redemption, though, from what I can tell so far, most of the events are allegorical in nature.”
“Allegorical? For what?”
“Political and social injustice, the nature of corruption.”
“Do those things mean anything to you?”
Emily smiled, though she was now shocked beyond belief. “Did you and your father read a lot, together?”
“And what about your mother? What did she do?”
“She taught music, but she wrote music all the time, too.”
“Oh? What kind of music?”
“Symphonies, though she wrote chamber music too.”
“What about you? Do you play?”
Claire nodded her head again. “The piano, and I’m learning the violin.”
“Do you write music, as well?”
Emily looked at her husband, her eyes taking in his apparent shock, too, then she looked at the girl again. “Claire? Would you like to live with Rupert and myself?”
The girl studied them both for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know you. I think the better question might be, do you want me to live with you? And then, I’d want to know why?”
“To take care of you,” Rupert said.
“To help you with your reading, and music,” Emily added. “Would that interest you?”
“Would I have any brothers or sisters?”
“Both, but they are all already on their own, so you wouldn’t live with them in the usual sense.”
“Where would I live?”
“In Philadelphia,” Rupert replied. “I manage a law firm there, but I travel a lot. Would that interest you?”
“What? Travel, or Philadelphia?”
“Both, I suppose.”
She closed the book and folded her hands on her lap, then she looked out the window – deep – into the passing landscape. A long sigh slipped from her lips, but she saw Rupert’s expression in the reflection she watched inside the glass, and she saw the man’s eyes were full of hope.
“I think I would miss Paris,” she said at last.
“We have a small villa outside of Paris,” Emily said hopefully. “That’s where we were going when…”
Claire smiled. “Oh? Where?”
“Near Chartres,” Rupert said. “Have you been to the cathedral there?”
She nodded her head carelessly, like the question was beneath contempt.
“What did you think of it?”
“I like the vaulting behind the altar. It’s like the web of creation came to life.”
He nodded. “We are going to retire there soon, in two more years. Would you like to live there?”
“Yes. Could I still go to Paris?”
“Yes, of course. As often as you like.”
“But for the next two years I’d live in Philadelphia?”
“That’s right. But who knows, you might enjoy that too. In fact, we’ll be stopping in Philadelphia in just a few minutes. We’re already in the north part of the city right now…”
Claire looked out the window for the next several minutes, clearly unimpressed as mile after mile of dowdy, red brick buildings slipped by. “Will we be able to see Independence Hall from the train?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“I’d like to see that. My father took me to the house Thomas Jefferson lived in, when he was ambassador to France. He told me how much Jefferson shaped the French Revolution.”
“Did he? And what did you think of that?”
“I would have liked to know Jefferson.”
“So would I.”
She turned and looked at the old man again, nodding her head as she thought things through. “Are we going to talk to Secretary Knox? About me?”
“And you want me to live with you?”
“Yes, if you think you’d like that.”
She closed her eyes, nodded her head once again, then resumed looking out the window – wondering about life ahead.
She walked up the boarding ramp to the Lusitania’s promenade deck, following Rupert now, and she had to admit she liked the burly, grandfatherly ways of the man. She reminded him of Tolstoy’s Count Ilya Rostov, the compassionately careless patriarch in War and Peace, and that wasn’t an altogether bad thing to be, she told herself, as long as wealth wasn’t important. She’d read enough about money to understand the implications of being poor, yet she’d read enough to understand that money could be a poison, too. Rupert seemed wealthy – yet kind of careless, too – like Count Ilya.
She followed him to their stateroom and was surprised to find she had her own stateroom, and that Emily had arranged to have a piano placed in sitting area. She assumed she’d have to play for them, and that bothered her a little – yet she had to admit she’d missed playing since she and her father left Paris.
She’d enjoyed Washington, the cherry blossoms along the Potomac most of all, and her few hours in the Secretary’s office – in Foggy Bottom, as Rupert called it – had been pleasant enough. Once she told Secretary Knox she’d be happy to live with the Wilkinson’s things had sailed along smoothly enough, though after Rupert said he’d handle all the paperwork she’d felt a little like a puppy.
Yet their brief return to Philadelphia had been promising. Emily had taken her to one bookstore after another, and now she had, literally, a steamer trunk full of unread books to fill the days ahead, and all sorts of new clothes, too. Her father had never attached much importance to such things, so she’d watched Emily as she was lead from one store to the next, the old woman going on and on about which designers were promising and which were doddering incompetents, wondering about the woman’s sanity.
Another maid had been engaged, a younger girl, perhaps fifteen, who would do, as far as she could tell, nothing but keep her clothes in order and make sure she was suitably dressed for meals. The girl’s name was Edith, and at first blush she seemed quite simple.
So, after the Wilkinson’s belongings were unpacked Marie and Edith came in to get her things settled, so she sat behind the piano and began playing a Debussy prélude, La cathédrale engloutie, the soft, measured notes filling the stateroom with a deep blue melancholy. As she fell deeper inside the music she closed her eyes and let the music take her deeper and deeper into the despair she’d denied for the past two weeks, and when, minutes later, she fell away from the keyboard she saw Emily and Rupert watching her from the corridor outside her room, the maids almost in tears…
She stood and pushed herself away from the instrument, then she walked out onto the promenade deck and made her way forward – as tugs pushed the ship away from the city.
She felt the ship accelerate into the East River, the open sea ahead now – again – then she felt Rupert by her side, standing – silently – beside her as sea-borne breezes lifted her hair.
“That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” he whispered.
She turned and looked at him, tried to read the emotions playing across his face. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sorry? Whatever for?”
She looked at the denial in his eyes and wondered where that came from, then she looked ahead.
“Will we pass where the Titanic went down?”
“I don’t know, Claire.”
“I’d like to…see that place again.”
He nodded. “I think I understand.”
She reached over and took his hand. “Thank you, Rupert.”
“Of course.” He sighed as he looked into her eyes, then he made up his mind. “Do you think, maybe one day, you could call me ‘Father?’”
She leaned into the old man, let him hug her for the longest time.
“Yes,” she said.
She heard his tears, and she smiled.
(C) 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com
[note: the way ahead, the next several weeks, anyway, will see little time to write. I’ll continue to work on this one as circumstances permit, but events could keep me away. Sorry.]