A few days later, Clothilde clarified my doubts about our 'stay' -- to Catherine.
We had been avoiding the owners of the mansion. Catherine hated it when we sneaked out by the side of the guest house, through an unattended small path among overgrown tropical plants -- concerned that she would spoil her lovely Saint-Laurent summer dress, and with her pride, too. We never used the front door, since we had nothing to do inside the main house, expect sometimes go to the kitchen -- through the backdoor. Not only embarrassed to have been caught in our lies, we were also nervous and expectant, waiting for the money Celeste would send us, through Johnny.
How to bring that subject up to him, without being rude or causing further embarrassment? Catherine would have to do it, since it was her mother's money. But she seemed to forget all the humiliation of our rundown honeymoon cottage, of having to use the same dresses over and over, and even be willing to overlook my lack of sophistication after a few glasses of champagne -- being imported from France, it costed the equivalent to many meals and, intending to save money, I avoided drinking it, leaving the whole bottle for her. A bit inebriated night after night, Catherine didn't seem to care about the decreasing money, as long as we still had some for the next day. I could not complain, once she was even more lascivious in bed.
For whatever reasons, the elder couple had been avoiding us, too. Until one day Clothilde towed Catherine to the small pavilion by the pool, on the opposite back of the garden to where our chalet was. Johnny had busted my somewhat innocent lie -- now our house of cards was about to come tumbling down.
"You are pregnant, aren't you, honey?"
"Of course not! What an idea!" Catherine's voice was shaky as she confronted the older woman.
"Oh, you might not know it yet?" Clothilde feigned surprise. "Then I suggest you to go to the hospital today to check it out..."
Though increasingly nervous, and getting progressively nauseated from the pungent smell of chlorine, Catherine continued to deny it.
"Honey! Not only are you pregnant... You look pregnant! Even over the telephone you seemed pregnant!" Clothilde gave a little laugh, and then paused dramatically. She was in real life the actress she hadn't been in the movies. "Do you understand it? Or not yet? Why do you think Celeste has sent you here to Punaouilo? So that Clothilde..." Another pause, when she pretended to be some sort of statue, tilting her face to display only her profile to Catherine, "...could take a good look on you... and that crude yet handsome boyfriend of yours. He is the father, right? Get it now? You're here just to confirm what Cel had already suspected from your lame excuses over the phone!" Clothilde again stared at Catherine. "You, young people, find yourselves very smart, isn't it? Yet, you have a lot to learn from us, honey!"
"Impossible! No!" Catherine moaned. "My mother cannot know anything!" And then she had to flee the pavilion, just in time to throw up at the bushes behind our little cottage.
But Celeste knew -- or at least she had suspected it. And now, through Clothilde, she was sure.
Thus, without realizing it, we had already started our 'stay' on the island -- our exile in Punaouilo.
It was not a complete waste of time since, in the beginning, Catherine did not fail to enjoy the island. We had been to the famous restaurants where the wealthy would arrive directly on boats, coming from their yatches. We had visited the jewelry shops, though not to buy, and we had even taken a look at the beaches -- however, Catherine had never wanted to go into the sea. The first two weeks, despite the tension with our hosts, were really nice and we behaved like carefree tourists.
On the third week, Johnny and Clothilde left, but instead of feeling relief, Catherine started manifesting concern. She began to see herself isolated from the 'civilized world'. It was painful to see how she missed Paris so much, she even got headaches from longing and thinking about her former life. I had nice conversations with Will, Joanna's husband, but Catherine would not address the couple of employees unless she had a demand.
After repeated phone calls, Catherine had not yet been able to talk to Celeste, to try to discuss the next stage of our journey back to France. And our money was running out. The maid at the apartment in Paris just reported that Celeste had traveled, leaving no contact number nor address.
We had already been on the island for five weeks -- and every week, Catherine was 'increasingly pregnant', as she put it herself. Our plan to travel to France with several stops seemed to be less feasible. We were almost in a hurry, running short of time.
"I was at the Chateau de Montbelle!", was Celeste's bombastic revelation, upon her return to Paris, when Catherine had finally reached her. She was elated to have visited the property she now wished to occupy, and that for decades she had been kept away from. Encompassing the multitude of rooms and corridors, the gardens and even the stables, Celeste wanted to redecorate everything, to erase the traces of the former Madame de Montbelle, that she would now become herself. But unwilling to give rise to false hopes in her daughter, of having herself a room in the castle, she shot "Have you gotten used to the island yet, my dear?"
"Get used to this?! I've had my share of this place!" Catherine growled. "I need more money, Celeste, to move to the next leg of the journey, which I thought could be--"
"What is it that you did not understand, Catherine?" Celeste interrupted her daughter. "Your presence in France would only disturb my plans at the time being! Even more, now that you are pregnant!" Catherine had started mumbling a reply, but Celeste cut her short. "Don't try to deny it, child! How could you do that to me? How can I become a grandmother at my age?!?" Celeste snorted, outraged. "I have to go, now."
"No Celeste! Don't leave me here. It's so hard to get a connection and--"
"I do have to hang up, Catherine. I have to go to the theater. One of these silly modern pieces they stage nowadays, and I have to contribute to their success by being in the audience and going backstage..." She yawned delicately, pretending to be bored.
Despite having abandoned stage so many years ago, Celeste was still invited to all prestigious social events. Her presence fashionable and desirable, she made sure not be ever forgotten nor left out. Her circle of friends included ministers, bankers, business and industry magnates, but also a wide scope of celebrated artists -- actors, painters, sculptors, composers, couturiers. Not so much an extensive list, she cared to be only among the best, those who were top of their métiers. In the same day, she could attend a fashion show at the front row, a vernissage and a gala evening, privileging wherever she was being honored or revered, strategically allowing herself time to change clothes, redo her hair and make-up for each event. Mainly in the theatrical world, Celeste would often make appearances in the category of 'ex-diva' -- though she hated to think of herself in the past tense. She had a reputable and ever-growing collection of Art, and her enviable wardrobe included several exquisite pieces that the couturiers tailored for her only. Her fortune had only grown over time, together with the influential reunions and soirées she held at the Rue de Furstemberg, where she had her apartment, frequented by noblemen and the best creative minds. Because she favored the company of men, the insistent gossip suggested she was no more than a first class hooker -- but she knew better how to play deaf to her detractors, and whenever the right occasion came around, behead them.
"Au revoir, enfant." A simple click set mother and daughter oceans apart.
Catherine had tried to phone her mother a dozen frustrating times that same evening, and she was sobbing when she got into bed and slapped me. "Stop snoring! You sound like an animal", she had yelled at me. I woke up startled, almost choking, and without asking, at once I knew the conversation with Celeste had gone wrong.
"You cannot force me to stay here Celeste! Not at the end of the world!" Catherine had hurled at her mother, during another phone call. It hurt Catherine even more when she heard Celeste speaking of going to fashion shows and theaters in Paris, while she could just return to our tiny chalet at the back of the property, which now seemed like a prison to her -- bare in comforts and full of mosquitoes. Being near the hillside and close to the forest, it was full of uncanny, unknown noises all through day and night.
Under the new perspective, since we had little money left, we restrained from going to restaurants, and the only food we ate was Joanna's -- that was actually delicious, but Catherine hated it for not being served with glamour. And Catherine hated me for controlling our money, too. It really seemed that she thought I was to blame for all her tropical unhappiness... even if, slowly, Celeste made her intentions clear to her daughter.
"Forcing you? I wish you would consider it as a favor to your mother! And ultimately to yourself, don't you understand, child? Your distance and your silence are necessary for me, so I can get Gaston to marry me!" Since the death of Armand's mother, Celeste attacked with renewed intent her lifelong ambition of becoming the new Madame de Montbelle. But through marriage, and not through legal battles, as it was how Catherine intended to join the Montbelle family and acquire the right to that surname. Such legal procedures contradicted Monsieur, and put a lot at risk, as Celeste knew better. "What do you prefer, you idiot? A castle or a surname? Oh, I know your stupid answer already! 'Illegitimate daughter'! What does it matter? Who cares? You know, your ridiculous insistence is annoying and dangerous!"
Catherine wanted to go to court with a paternity acknowledgement process against Gaston. She believed that the right moment had arrived for her -- Gaston was finally free and no longer needed to hide his second family, and his relationship with Armand was not at best terms. Armand was shaken and devastated himself, willing to hide and retreat and not to fight, as Catherine knew so well. Finally, the De Montbelle household seemed vulnerable -- and both mother and daughter wanted to deliver their blows on it, though by different means, with distinct purposes and from opposite sides. Just that Celeste wouldn't allow Catherine to strike. And to remain sure of that impossibility, had decided to confine her daughter to the tropics.
"You already know what I think about bearing a child when one is so young!" When Catherine had been born, Celeste had been even younger than her daughter was, and she spoke from her own experience. "How many times have I warned you! It is not only stupid... it is... a waste of life! And an ordeal!"
Celeste used to say that her actress career had been interrupted by the birth of her daughter. But Catherine herself had overheard a conversation between Gaston and Celeste, where she had accused him of having demanded she let go of her career. Ever since, it was Celeste who made the demands for compensation.
"You have used me, Celeste, haven't you? You sent me here to check on Armand's life... To try to obtain part of that stupid little island you thought he owned... Or did you actually know he did not own anything? You won't answer me, right, Celeste? But actually, you simply wanted me far away from France, isn't it so?" As the understanding that she had been used and deceived by her own mother dawned on Catherine, she was doubly hurt. Deeply, in her pride. And she came to doubt her own intelligence, too... Catherine, the intellectual, realizing how naive she was if compared to her wily mother.
"You really needed a vacation, ma chérie! Haven't you said so yourself?" Celeste joked. What once had left us feeling puzzled -- why were we heading to Punaouilo, which was in the opposite direction to France -- was now being answered by the very author of the plan.
But Catherine wanted to keep on fighting, though without any weapons against Celeste and the exile imposed on her, on us -- on our small family-to-be.
"I have my research on Russian mystics to carry on at the Université, Celeste!" Mentioning her studies, Catherine had almost cried. Celeste had usually encouraged her daughter's academic ambitions, and Catherine thought that might be a way of reasoning her mother. "And you were going to ask Gaston to pay for my field trip to Russia!" Catherine heard Celeste sigh impatiently, and her despair grew. "Oh mon Dieu! Did you lie about that too, Celeste?" From a very early age, Catherine had been forbid to call Celeste 'mother'.
"Don't be ridiculous, Catherine! You've changed those plans yourself! It was you who decided to get pregnant! How many times have I warned you against it? And it is you who cannot fly by plane! It is you to get sick on ships! How often have I refused Paul's invitations to go to Tangier, because of you and your ridiculous fears? Now, darling, it's my time to enjoy my freedom!" Next, Celeste used a softer tone, as if she had realized how doomed her child must be feeling. "Weren't you happy, chérie, to visit Punaouilo? Everybody say it's Heaven on Earth! Don't you think it's a privilege to live on an island that the whole world dreams of?" Again, Celeste sounded bossy. "Now calm down. You are not leaving Punaouilo because you have no means, do you understand? And now I must go. I hate being late for the Opera!" To Celeste, being late meant having to make her entry in the dark, without the gaze of admirers following her, and that she could not bear!
Author's note: having been imported from a former version of the story, some of the comments below are dated previous to this post. Once the plot has not been altered, just the pagination, I am keeping them since they are very dear and precious to me.