I hope you’ll enjoy this short story, my little gift to you. I would like to wish all my readers a wonderful Christmas filled with laughter, joy, love… and lots of chocolate!
~ Paris, 1887 ~
Old Marcel Rollande, once the respected professor of history at the Sorbonne, was sitting in the salon of his draughty flat, and watched the world rush by under his window. Christmas was already lurking behind the corner, the air was filled with the hints of cinnamon, chocolate and hazelnut. Snowflakes danced merrily in the piercing wind, and the million festive lights of the balustrades put the moon to shame. But the excitement didn’t reach up to Monsieur Rollande’s flat. He didn’t celebrate Christmas since the death of his beloved wife, Hortense. Five years have passed since she became a forever beautiful, forever warm memory, but time has stood frozen ever since for Monsieur Rollande. His whole life took up the habit of mourning, and from that moment on, all light, warmth, joy, the soft ring of laughter were absent from the little apartment on the Boulevard Saint Marcel. Old Rollande passed his days sitting in an armchair, reminiscing about the happy days that fled him, and his night-time dreams brought dear Hortense back to him, young and vivid as she once was, the orange blossoms of her bridal veil still sitting on her dark hair. He needed no companion besides his memories, the ghosts of beloved souls visiting him from time to time. After 55 years of celebrating with his dearest, Christmas became a celebration of love and family ties, and now that these ties were irreparably broken and love robbed from him, Rollande needed no Christmas either.
But this year all was different. One day an old colleague, the eminent Professor Lefebvre wrote to him and recounted the tale of a bright but impoverished student of law, who was in desperate need of cheap lodgings after his landlady increased his rent on the room he inhabited in the slums of the Montmartre. Lefebvre knew very well that his retired colleague lived on a modest pension from the university, and that he had an unoccupied bedroom in his flat. Taking his student as a lodger would, Lefebvre argued, bring benefits to both. Rollande hesitated a great deal. He has grown accustomed to a solitary life. He was content with his memories, and did not wish to be disturbed by a lodger. But he often worried that his pension would not suffice for his living costs. Therefore, he consented at last.
The arrangements did indeed prove beneficial to both parties. Rollande realised that he very much enjoyed having a fellow human by his side. And Paul Leclair was worthy of living with the excellent professor. He was modest, dutiful, hardworking and full of promise, and gave the respect that Rollande deserved. Buried in his heavy books during the day, he let the professor reminisce on the glory of the past. But when the evening came, the old teacher and the young student sat together in the salon, and kept each other company. Sometimes, Rollande told stories of his life, while at other times he let the student talk, and he listened with real interest. This is how he learnt that Leclair had tender feelings for the local grocer’s daughter, a pretty red-haired girl. Leclair’s passionate declarations of love brought this long-gone emotion back to the little flat.
Still, Rollande had no intentions whatsoever to celebrate Christmas. He may have liked Leclair, but he could never feel the sentiments that he once felt for Hortense. Long, long ago Christmas was the time when heated embraces protected the two lovers against the cruel cold. This year, the winter that raged outside and which crept slowly inside through the windowsills was vicious and merciless as ever, but the promise of an all-conquering warmth strayed far from the professor’s house. He expected Leclair to spent the holidays with his beloved, and he was perfectly content in his armchair, surrounded by his memories.
But Rollande was wrong. However much he lived in the shadowland of the past, even he couldn’t help noticing that his young companion’s lively red cheeks were covered by the sickly, greyish mask of sorrow, and the wrinkes of worry gathered on his smooth forehead. His soft, gentle smile that greeted every morning with enthusiasm, faded into a barely concealed frown. One evening as they conversed over a stimulating glass of port, the professor ventured to ask:
“How are your studies going? I assume you are quite overloaded with coursework.”
“Oh, on the contrary. My studies are going well, and I am enjoying my rest over the winter break.”
“Why, then, this gloomy mood? A young soul such as yourself should rejoice and celebrate in this season of festivities.”
Leclair emitted a sigh so pathetic that Rollande unwittingly found himself in the grip of melancholy.
“I have no reason to rejoice this Christmas. I am a great deal unhappy.”
Rollande recalled the passionate days of his youth, and nodded in understanding.
“By my experience, it has to be a person of the fairer sex to make one so unhappy as you seem to be.”
Leclair buried his head behind his trembling hands to hide his nascent tears.
“It’s not the fairer sex, but the wretchedness of impossible love.” he exclaimed in agitation.
“And why would that love be impossible? You have always spoken hopefully about Mademoiselle Delacoeur’s interest in you.”
“Oh yes, I still believe that she also fancies me at least a little. I wished to ask for her hand in marriage at Christmas. But I have heard rumours that a fellow student, the son of a baron, also intends marry her. What chances have I got against someone who can satisfy all her desires? I can’t even give her a ring as a token of my love! But if she doesn’t become mine, I will have nothing to live for. I shall die of sorrow.”
Rollande shook his head with all the vigour left in him.
“Do not speak thus, my young friend. True love is the greatest treasure a man can give and a woman can desire. Do not be rash in dismissing yourself. Christmas is a miraculous time, you may well be surprised!”
“Oh, I cannot celebrate this year. I’m too miserable.”
Rollande, all of a sudden, felt his lonely heart enlarge and fill with the warmth of sympathy. He himself was far beyond the light-hearted pleasures of life, but he couldn’t bear to see a young boy already given up and resigned to the cruel turns of fate. He couldn’t give material assistance to Paul, because the student was proud in his poverty and would never accept something that he didn’t work for. And what valuables could he give? He was poor himself!
But he couldn’t accept to see Leclair have a joyless Christmas.
“Oh, let us not subject ourselves to foolish talk! Christmas is a rare occasion when joy is permitted even to the most miserable. We ought to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with all our heart, because through him there is hope for all of us.” he declared with the tone of someone who would not accept opposition.
Leclair consented, though more to show his gratitude to the old professor than out of real conviction. But the spirit of celebration soon seized him. They joined what little means they possessed to prepare for the festive day. On the afternoon of the 23rd, Leclair was to go out in pursuit of a handsome piece of turkey, while Rollande, suddenly regaining some of his youthful vigour, dressed the house in festive ornaments he once used abundantly in happier times.
Leclair dutifully arrived, with the desired meat in one hand and a finely wrapped Christmas present in the other.
“On my way home, I couldn’t help stopping at the celebrations on the Champs Elysées. By my faith, they were delightful! A choir sang carols while children danced around a giant Christmas tree. There were gift boxes under the tree, and the people picked them up rapidly. However, I succeeded in rescuing one for ourselves. I say, if we cannot have gifts, let us have a gift box to deceive us under the tree!
“Very well, very well.” Rollande nodded approvingly, but he seemed to be miles away and lost deep in thought.
A cruel gust of wind blew in through the window left ajar, and a shiver ran through Rollande. Leclair leapt to the window and closed it promptly.
“Would you like a cup of hot milk to warm you up?” he asked with genuine concern.
Hot milk was the favourite beverage of Monsieur Rollande, and he was grateful for the proposition. Leclair walked out to the kitchen, and when he returned to the salon a few minutes later, he found Rollande in the same pensive position, almost becoming part of his favourite armchair. Leclair gave him his cup. Rollande was silent for a minute, while he sipped his milk with delight. Leclair busied himself with the decorations. He presently took hold of the gift box. As he lifted it up, he stopped and gave a confused look before he shook the box tentatively.
“By my faith, it seems that there is something in this box.”
“Now that is an interesting idea. Why would there be anything in a decorative object?”
“Maybe it is a game set up by the government to reward the lucky ones who pick the right box.” Leclair replied, refusing to let the disbelief of the professor destroy his enthusiasm. “It can’t hurt if I take a look inside…”
He removed the thick layers of paper with care, until a plain cardboard box became visible. He shook it. There came a rattling sound that was hitherto muted by the rattling of the wrapping paper. With awakened curiosity, he lifted the lid and peeked inside.
He froze as he reached in and pulled out a small object that lit up the dim room.
“What have you found?” asked Rollande eagerly, leaning forward in excitement.
“Oh heavens, this is… this is a ring!”
And there it was, a ring with a heart-shaped amethyst stone. Rollande leaped to his feet.
“A miracle! You can see that the old saying about Christmas miracles is true!”
Leclair stood still in confusion, then, overcome with sentiments, rushed to Rollande, and gave him a warm embrace.
“Thank you!” he exclaimed.
“Thank the Lord, not me!” Rollande replied, himself full of emotions and not wishing to give in to them. “And now, go to her and ask for her hand.”
“But… what will you…”
“Do not worry about me. I will be perfectly at peace with my milk. But you must hurry and ask her before someone else does!”
It didn’t take long to persuade the young student. The magical fire of love heated him, and he couldn’t bear to stay still. He almost forgot to take a coat as he rushed away like a puppy bewildered by a ball.
Rollande watched him from his window and thought about his wife. He did have a lot to give: a happy marriage filled with love and joy. And he hoped that the ring, the token of their unbreakable love would pass on its magic to anyone who possessed it.
~ In memoriam Roland Guillaumel ~