Monday 21 November 2011

The Matriarch

An imaginary biography, based on his life of his grandmother
by Jean de Boissière

Looking up the driveway from the road you could just see the low stone mansion, the estate house of “Champs Fleurs”. It was the only building in the island that had any pretensions to a form of architecture. There was a pleasing symmetry in the long, low front with tiled gallery nestling between the two bow windows of the wings.
The interior was exactly like the stage section of a theatre. The centre portion of the building was divided into a saloon and a dining room. They were both panelled in beautiful native woods that had been given a caressing polish by time.
The furnishings were few, but excellent examples of French craftsmanship. On the walls hung several paintings of gentlemen in jabeaux and wigs. The crystal chandelier that descended from the carved ceiling matched the lovely candelabra from the locust walls.
This was the stage proper. If you opened any of those fine panelled doors you looked into one of the dressing rooms. Actually, these were the bedrooms of the house. Unpainted, bare, they were furnished with a broken iron bedstead, a rickety washstand surmounted by a mirror in which you could just barely see your face, and a single, unsafe chair.
In the largest of these rooms was a great mahogany bedstead. On its vastness lay a withered old woman with a gnome-like head atop her tiny body, the chatelaine of Champs Fleurs. As she slept clothed in her soiled chemise, at the end of her outstretched arm her hand clutched a beautiful gold and amethyst rosary.
It was early afternoon when a black butler in glistening white silently opened the door and beckoned to the maid who sat sewing at the foot of the bed. He whispered something in her ear and left the room as silently as he had come. The maid called the old woman softly.
“Aih! Ai! Ai! What is it?” the awakened woman demanded in a shrill, high pitched voice.
“Madame, the Governor has come to call.” the maid told her while she was fetching a basin of water to wash the sleep from the sharp piercing eyes. When this was done, she arranged the short silver curls under the lace cap and opened the enormous wardrobe to take out a purple robe that sparkled with tiny gold spangles.
This was thrown over Madame and her soiled chemise. The toilette was then completed by placing a pair of lavender silk slippers on her tiny strong feet.
Everything complete, Madame was ready for the centre stage and her act. The maid opened the door discreetly and the little old lady passed easily into the dining room. From here with slow graceful movements, she went into the salon to receive her guest.
This she did with a charm and a dignity made perfect by many years of practice. Although she was in her late 80s, she sipped her potent sherry and talked with a sparkling wit on everything. The only subject she never touched upon was the very interesting one of her life.
Close upon 100 years ago, she had been a little girl with keen gazelle eyes and masses of golden brown tresses, who romped about a sugar plantation in the south of Trinidad.
Marie Joseph Anvers, her father, had barely managed to keep his fine estate appropriately called “Ne Plus Ultra”, out of the hands of the rapacious sugar companies. But in order to do so, he had to stagger it with mortgages.
Unable to send his three children to France for their education as he had planned, he devoted much of his time to teaching them himself.
Jeanne longed to see all the fascinating places she read of in her story books. So when a travelling German courted her when she was but 16, she accepted him at once.
She spent her honeymoon travelling in Europe and settled down in her husband’s city of Munich. It was the Munich of Ludwig and Wagner, full of music, gaiety and colour. But in the midst of all this happiness her husband died. Alone and with very little money, she returned to Trinidad.
Upon her return she decided that she must marry again and quickly. This time she cast her eye on French Creole planter, Henri de Fontenelle, who owned a very large estate near Port of Spain. Jeanne was shortly transformed into Madame de Fontenelle.
Once married she found out the estate was not all it had appeared to be. It was groaning under the weight of the mortgage it had to bear. Undaunted, she took it in hand and fought to get rid of those mortgages She set out to increase the cocoa and encouraged released East Indians to make villages on the estate. In ten years time, she had freed the estate of its encumbrances. She was now 36 and had had six children for her second husband.
The education of her children was the next task she set herself. The three girls went to French convents and English finishing schools, and the boys went to European universities. And she paid for it all out of the rent roll paid by the poor Indians who lived in the villages she had made!
She turned her attention to entertaining. She wanted her children to have every social advantage, and she knew only too well that the supreme art of the English people who ruled her country was nepotism worked to its finest point. Positions were to be won by favours politely exchanged over the dinner table.
She commenced the habit of giving a grand ball at Champs Fleurs once a year. She made it into an event that those who considered themselves fortunate enough to be invited talked about nothing else until the next one came around.
She seldom entertained privately. But when she did, it would be the Governor or his select circle. She decided to cultivate that the successive Governors came to see her every Sunday afternoon. The one that followed kept up the practice. And the next. Eventually, it became as compulsory for the Governor to visit Madame de Fontenelle on a Sunday as it was for him to attend divine service in the morning!
The legend grew that she was the most powerful woman in Trinidad, and she encouraged it. While this carefully built-up life was being lived, Madame’s private life remained simplicity itself. In the mornings, she would discuss crops with her men tenants and babies with their women. She clung to the simple ways of her people so strongly that she kept clipped pieces of the umbilical cords of her children. These she would bury in a newly planted field, as firm in her belief that it would make the field fertile as any superstitious peasant of the south of France!
Her first son was eased into the civil service and sky-rocketed into an executive position before he was 30. The second son was but 20 when he was given a responsible position in another part of the British empire on recommendation of one of Madame’s governors. The third was too lazy even to take one of the soft jobs their mother was winning for them and married a rich, instable widow against his mother’s wishes. He only avoided the disaster she had predicted for him by dying gracefully just as the last cent of the woman’s fortune disappeared.
With her legendary fame every visiting notable was brought to Champs Fleurs by the Governor to see Madame. American presidents, English royal princes and foreign nobility passed through. In their wake came the bankers and military men, amongst whom the daughters found their husbands. One married the director of an English Bank and the other the Colonel of an Irish regiment. The third daughter was born to die a virgin and refused to wed even when they tempted her with a questionable Italian prince.
While Madame de Fontenelle was creating this top niche in the social structure for herself and her children, her brother and sister had taken very different paths.
The brother had rested on Ne Plus Ultra until the mortgagee had taken it from under him. He then got a job tallying casks of rum at a warehouse in Port of Spain. As he son became an ardent devotee of the rum he tallied, his count began to loose its accuracy. When they fired him, he settled himself upon two hard working girls who were distantly related to him. They thought it would be an honour to have the brother of their illustrious cousin Madame de Fontenelle living in a small room in their backyard. But he had different ideas. To him it was a vantage point from which he could sally forth on nightly expeditions in search of rum.
The “baron”, as he was humorously dubbed by the people of Port of Spain, became famous for his rum shop counter speeches. Three pints and he would unfold the inner history of the most pretentious families of Trinidad in all their intimacies. In his latter years, when the two girls would give him nothing but food and clothes, his auction sales of the few rags to his back would always draw a capacity crowd to the grog shop where it was taking place.
The sister who was temperamentally very unsound, married a Spanish merchant with a grouchy nature. They fought night and day. Out of this embattled union sprung a son who was to be the mainstay of his mother in a most orthodox manner. She ended her relations with her husband by prosecuting him for stealing her chickens. After drifting from one keeper to the next she ended as a full-time professional with her son as her commercial attaché.
Although they lived within three miles of one another, from the day Jeanne had left Ne Plus Ultra with her first husband they had never laid eyes on her again. The sister wrote her many appeals for money but they remained unanswered. The brother had tried to enter Champs Fleurs one day only to be savagely struck across the face with a riding whip by one of his nephews.
Cut off from her family, her husband dead and all her children safely launched in the world and separated from her with the exception of the virgin Claudia, Madame de Fontenelle settled back into a lonely reposeful life. There were no more balls at Champs Fleurs.
One morning, when she was 91, she got up, took her breakfast and read a good book until 10 o’clock. That was the hour she went into her lovely terraced garden. Here the 20 gardeners all slept soundly until Madame made her appearance on the top terrace. Then they would all immediately spring to life.
This morning, as usual, she walked around with the head gardener giggling, while she dug the tip of her parasol into the buttocks of the Indian garden boys. At 11, she climbed the long stone stairway to the house where her lunch with its tankard of stout awaited her.
After lunch, she retired for her afternoon sleep; telling Myotte, her aid, that she wanted her rosary to say the thousand chaplets she said every afternoon for the sins of her descendants. When Myotte brought it she admitted slyly that she would probably wake up on the thousandth.
At five, Myotte awoke her to prepare her for the visitors of the afternoon. Today they were an English novelist and his wife who were safely embalmed in Government House and were unaccustomed to such honours and spoke more than necessary about it. Madame thought them stupid and refused to speak English. As this made them speak French, which they knew a little more imperfectly than their own tongue, she got the best of the conversation. She drank three cocktails with them and sparkled with malicious Gallic humour.
At 8 o’clock, she took dinner with her usual tankard of red Bordeaux. After dinner, she dozed on the sofa which she had placed on the tiled gallery in order that she might watch the starlit sky. At ten she retired to her bed and was soon fast asleep. At midnight, Myotte took a look at the little old lady and discovered that Madame had entered her final sleep.
As she lay in state in her coffin in the very centre of the panelled salon, upon her face was engraved the dignity of a people. In the salon also lay the last possession of the French in Trinidad, their prestige. With her grand manner she had made the world believe that its individual dignity, charm and intelligence had been those of its people.
The funeral procession was three miles long. In it were people of every class, colour and creed. They all devoutly mourned the death. But few of that long line headed by the representative of the British Crown, realised that it was not only the passing of Jeanne de Fontenelle they were mourning. They were assisting at the obsequies of a class; as such the French had passed from the scene in Trinidad.

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