At the Hotel Bessette
Before Sylvie, I was the only child at Hotel Bessette. My brother David left me when I was six to go to sea, and for two years I was alone with the hens for two whole years. Life was endless housework, cooking and laundry and mending stockings and cleaning rooms. The women were mostly kind, but they were busy and grown-ups besides, and they had little to say to a child of eight. Julie and Martine, cousins, were of an age with my mother, and like aunts to me. Kindly, but meddlesome. They’d been in the hotel as long as I could remember. Marie-Élise was younger, pretty and quiet. She’d come from another maison in a different part of the city when I was a baby. Everyone liked her, even Sarah. Sarah didn’t like anything. I hated Sarah. She was plain and sour, and Julie and Martine used to whisper that it was a wonder she could pay her rent. Of course she must have, or my mother would have turned her out.
Sylvie came when I was almost nine. Two years my senior, she was tall and sweet and sophisticated, a real Parisian lady. She and her mother carried themselves like princesses, and I worshiped them. My mother accepted Sylvie and her mother on the condition of Sylvie’s employment. We were together every moment, working and sharing stories and jokes like sisters. Most nights I snuck into their room and Sylvie and I slept side by side, whispering deep into the night.
Sylvie taught me to sing and to play Faro. We gambled secretly with Marie-Élise and the cousins, and with our winnings we bought pastries on Sundays, when we were permitted to venture out into the district together. She taught me all the letters, and read to me from her mother’s bible sometimes. When we went out to buy our ill-gotten pastries, she’d challenge me to read the signs on shops, and I when I learned them all, we walked down a different street and I read different ones. Those years were the best of my life.
When I was eleven, everything changed. One night, in the spring, Sylvie and I were playing cards with Marie-Élise in the parlor, and a man came in and commented to my mother how lovely Sylvie was. The man had come in before, but not for at least a year. Sylvie had changed enormously that year, growing even taller and more lovely than she’d always been. Lithe and graceful, Sylvie had perfectly delicate features and flowing honey-blonde hair which she kept expertly coifed. The man commented on all these qualities and others I would have been too shy to mention, but about which the older ladies had teased her for months. We pretended not to hear, and awkwardly continued our game. Marie-Élise grinned conspiratorially at us, and Sylvie blushed. There was a look on her face which I didn’t then understand, but which I have since worn myself; a mixture of fear and resolve, duty and horror.
When the conversation ended, the man took Sylvie by the hand and she demurely set her cards aside, flush leaving a sad pallor in its wake. She silently followed as he led her upstairs, and I watched, frozen, as they disappeared. Marie-Élise laughed.
“Don’t be jealous, minette. You’re not far behind!”
I don’t remember the rest of the game. It was an eternity before the man left, and I bolted up the stairs and went to the room Sylvie shared with her mother. She was sitting on the bed in her shift, hands folded, staring absently ahead. I stood in the doorway, completely at a loss.
The spell was broken when her mother appeared behind me and shuffled me out. I heard her mother’s muffled talking and a flurry of activity, and in a few minutes, Sylvie’s mother threw open the door again and bustled out, arms laden with linens.
“She’ll be down in a moment, petit lapin,” she told me, closing the door behind her, and she swept off downstairs.
Sylvie didn’t talk about that night but there was blood on her sheets and shift when I washed them in the morning. I had never thought much about the men who visited our little hotel in the evenings, but from that night onward, each was my mortal enemy. For the first time, I hated Hotel Bessette. Word spread quickly of a new girl at Hotel Bessette, and the nights were busier and busier for Sylvie. Rarely had I ever seen my mother in such high spirits, and the other women were jolly. They teased Sylvie, and I hated them.
We didn’t eat pastries anymore. Sylvie didn’t have time to gamble. Martine moved into Julie’s room and Sylvie into Martine’s, and I realized Sylvie had more visitors than Martine and Julie combined. I went to sleep beside her in her new room, and she sent me away. She still helped me with the chores, though she didn’t have to anymore. She was the star of the maison.
Over the next months, Sylvie slowly returned to her usual self. She seemed fine, and even asked me to sleep next to her again, to whisper together, although now she mostly listened. We didn’t talk about the men. Sometimes I’d walk upstairs and in my head I’d see her sitting numbly on the edge of the bed, and I’d remember my hate. I tried to avoid seeing them come for her. One night I went into the garden, but I heard them through the open windows, and I couldn’t stop myself from crying. Sarah found me out there and called me a baby. She made me come in and smile and sing for the guests.
It was in the fall, just after my twelfth name day, when Sylvie got sick. She wouldn’t wake one morning, and her mother went to wake her up, and came back and quietly asked my mother to call for a doctor. I wasn’t allowed to see Sylvie until the doctor left. My mother told me I would have to be Sylvie’s nursemaid until she was better, and she wasn’t to leave her room. Nobody could see her.
When I was allowed into the room, I found Sylvie in bed, sweating with fever and covered with red bumps from head to toe. I cooled her face with a damp cloth, and she grinned weakly.
“Oh, chouchou,” she said, “The doctor says we’ll be stuck in here for days!”
Even with the sickness, they were the best days we’d had in ages. Sylvie was covered in red bumps for a month, and couldn’t entertain guests, so in the evenings we were cloistered in the bedroom with only each other for company. When the fever was bad, she slept, and couldn’t eat, and we worried. When the fever wasn’t as bad, we sat in bed together and played and talked and laughed like when she first came to the Hotel. She ate very little and became thinner by the day, but she lit up like she hadn’t done in most of a year. It seemed everything was back to normal. We’d been so merry those weeks that I lost my head and told Sylvie that I wished she’d be ill forever. There was suddenly a darkness to her, and I wished I could take it back.
“ Chérie,” she whispered, not meeting my eyes. “I will be ill forever.”
Sylvie’s spots faded and she started eating again. She gained back the weight she’d lost, although her cheeks never lost the hollowness they’d taken on. By All Saint’s Day there were visitors for her again.
Just after the new year, I had fallen asleep in Sylvie’s room and she shook me awake in the middle of the night. I mumbled my confusion.
“You must be quiet, mon cœur,” she whispered. She’d lit a candle, by which I saw that the sheets were awash in blood. I nearly cried out at the sight. “It’s all right. You’re a woman. We must get you cleaned up so nobody knows.”
She pulled me out of bed and stripped me from my soiled shift, corralling me toward the washbasin and setting about getting the bed in order. She showed me how to manage the blood, and she said that she’d claim the mess as her own when our mothers awoke. Clean and settled in a new shift, she tucked me back into bed and tiptoed out to dump the soiled sheets.
For months, Sylvie helped me conceal my maturity, but each month she became more weary. One night, as we lay together in the dark, she said what we’d devoutly ignored for more than a year.
“You can’t avoid it forever.”
I hesitated. I pushed away an image of myself sitting on the edge of the bed as a younger Sylvie had. I couldn’t be as cold as she’d been those first weeks. I couldn’t bear to consider what Sylvie had to do every night. I could never do it.
“Maybe they’ll never find out,” I said.
“It won’t matter.”
We lay quietly for a long time.
“We could escape,” I whispered.
“Oh, mon minette! Where would we go?”
“Let’s go to Paris! You miss it, don’t you?”
“I loved Paris. But minette, it snows in Paris. Where will we live?” I could hear the smile in her voice.
“We’ll become minstrels, and we’ll sing for our keep. Everyone will love us, and we’ll sing for the King and he’ll take us back to Versailles with him and we’ll live at the Château. Everything will be perfect.”
“Oh, minette. You know I can’t sing anymore.”
It was true. Her throat was ravaged by the illness, and while she still sang sometimes during chores, it was with a rougher, shyer voice.
“I’ll sing for the both of us, Sylvie!”
Sylvie put her arms around me and gave me a squeeze.
“What would I ever do without you?”