Monsieur de Montbelle entered the office wearing a silk robe de chambre, indicating to Armand that he was not included in his father's official schedule for the day. The young man was more like a morning distraction, or a brief annoyance. But the perfectly combed silver white hair, and a sophisticated smell of musky eau de cologne about him discarded any notion that Monsieur might have just woken up, despite still having his pajamas pants on.
After a moment of hesitation, Monsieur de Montbelle marched straight to his massive table, turning the exquisite art deco lamp on, to be himself in a pool of light like the works of art surrounding him. The charming secretary was immediately swept away by a storm of responsibilities and tasks, leaving father and son alone.
Wondering whether his father had, in a single glance, perceived the ongoing, secretive connection between his employee and son, Armand now feared for the secretary's position. But he found next the real reason of his father's discomfort, and why he hadn't approached to shake hands, simply motioning Armand to take a seat in front of his desk. Armand did notice the expensive damask before he sat, and knowing his father did not care about home decor, wondered if that was Celeste Mortinné's taste and influence. Armand was astonished to see a vase of fresh roses adorning his work table -- having always prohibited Madame de Montbelle to place them in whichever room he used, claiming to be allergic, Monsieur seemed to accept or at least stand them now, coming from his lover.
"What with that hair, now?" The elder man asked, in a tone that revealed ill disposition against his son's constant, ridiculous changes. No good morning, welcome, how are you son, nothing. "Lice?"
Armand had forgotten about his tresses, or lack of, until that moment when the secretary had first mentioned them. He should have at least then started expecting his father's reaction to be even stronger than the last time, when he had sported a ponytail. He should have braced himself, and thought in advance of a better answer.
"I'm becoming a monk." Armand mouthed, disastrously.
Monsieur de Montbelle fell silent, fixing his gaze on the old copy of Machiavelli's 'The Prince', probably a most expensive rarity, that lay open on his desktop. More than any other room in the apartment, everything in that office -- from the endless rows of leather cover books to the best liquor from most exclusive origins --, was carefully chosen to demonstrate wealth and boast power -- for it was where dignitaries, bankers, politicians and businessmen held private interviews, that could not ever make the newspapers, with Monsieur.
"In Thailand." Armand added shyly. Knowing no detail would repair the damage done by his first declaration, he now simply intended to take his father out of a stubborn mutism. "A buddhist monk. A forest monk."
"You are not joining any sect, I assure you." Monsieur hissed, raising a finger to advert and intimidate Armand, as if he was still a small boy. That finger used to signal Monsieur's explosions of anger, when he could use his belt to beat his son, well into Armand's adolescence. The silk band he used at that moment was not very intimidating, though, and Armand had to control himself not to laugh.
"Buddhism is not a sect, don't you worry." He replied, trying to placate his father.
"I am not worried." Monsieur tapped his fingers on the marble desktop. Not so much nervously, but as if rehearsing a tune on the piano. He was trying to control himself. "You are not joining. I forbid you." He sentenced, seriously.
Armand had already felt coffee in his father's breath, floating towards him across the table, but just now he identified another particular smell, that he had learned to attribute to Monsieur since childhood -- newspapers. Monsieur de Montbelle read newspapers in several languages, many of them along each day, from morning to evening, and his fingers were impregnated with that smell, that would spread when the man agitated his hands like now.
"Everything is set, already." Armand informed, most calmly. His decision to retreat from mundane life had nothing to do with his father, against whom, formerly, he had so strongly revolted. "I return to Asia in a couple of days. I know what I'm doing. I know this master."
As tiring as it usually felt, he was aware that everything between father and son essentially came down to a dispute of power. Each conversation was an intricate negotiation, and the son had to clearly mark his territory to leave his father's tyrannical rules at the borders.
"What do you mean by master? Someone you have to obey?"
"Oh yes. Not blindly, though." Monsieur must have been thinking of those mad religious leaders who led their credulous congregations into mass suicide; his incredulity heightened at the thought of his only son obeying another man, while disobeying his own father. "More like a teacher, a spiritual teacher. A guru.", he informed. Though the correct term was arahant, Armand sensed Monsieur de Montbelle might know the other word better.
But Monsieur had overheard everything.
"I shall disinherit you, Armand." He said sharply.
Armand's confusion at his father's unexpected remark was less just than his irritation. But as if he was before his spiritual master -- and he was, in fact! --, Armand observed his anger rise and manifest, and tried not to react or speak out of it. He answered rationally, in a language his father would certainly comprehend.
"I believe the sum my mother left me is enough for..."
Monsieur de Montbelle cut him short. "Your sanity can be easily contested, in this case. I'll take you to court if you try to donate money for any sect..."
"Oh, so that's your concern, then!" Armand smiled condescendingly. "They don't ask for money. They don't need any money at all. It's not like a club where you pay a fee to join."
"How do they eat? Where do these people live? In a forest, you said?" Monsieur de Montbelle made everything sound exotic, improbable, or foolish, instead of simple and sensible as they really were.
"We do one alms round everyday, begging for food, and accepting whatever people give us. And believe me, a single meal suffices when..."
"You mean you'll beg for food?" The elder man sneered. "My son, you are out of your mind!"
"Not yet. I need to meditate a lot, still, to go out of my mind..."
Falling silent again, Monsieur de Montbelle fixed his eyes on the Pre-Raphaelite preciosity across the room, a painting which he had contemplated more than a hundred times -- an ageing courtesan playing the mandolin, immersed in the shadows of a cavern or tavern, which did not quite disguise the woman's wrinkled neck and breasts. She had lost her beauty, but would not let go of her joys and pleasure, which she exercised in the form of music and a shameless smile. That melancholic painting had a soothing effect on Monsieur, making him ponder about his own fate in life, a valuable aid in the negotiations he held in the office -- when behind him, and in full view to his visitors, he had placed another painting, from the same period, depicting a voluptuous nymph. Languidly reclined, a blue cloth so thin as to enhance more than hide her curves, letting her beautifully rigid breasts and nipples subtly show underneath, in one hand she held a purse, and the other rested between her soft thighs, where shadows both hid and let guess the tip of her fingers. More than one visitor had joked about the painting being an allegory to -- or an exertion to -- masturbation. Its observation usually troubled or excited his visitors -- and that was the reason why Monsieur had placed it behind him, facing them .
But he guessed the sensuous nymph would neither excite nor trouble his son, who was indifferent to her charms.
"Is it a cure for your sickness you are seeking?" He asked Armand.
"Sickness?" Armand asked in return.
"Yes, your... personal sickness." reinforced Monsieur, stressing significantly the words he wanted his son to comprehend, without further explanations.
"I don't know what you are talking about, Gaston." Armand rarely called his father that. "I am not sick. Do I look sick?"
"You know, your... sick preferences." For a brief moment, Monsieur de Montbelle seemed embarrassed.
"Oh..." Armand sighed. "That is no sickness."
"It most certainly is." His father insisted. "It's not simply a shameful sin. Homosexualism is a sickness. Just look it up on the dictionary." Monsieur de Montbelle couldn't hide his agitation. He was sweating, and particularly annoyed that he might have to take a bath before continuing with his schedule. "Have you considered the problems it will bring you? Professionally, socially. You'll be easily blackmailed, or passed over."
"As a monk?" Armand asked simply.
"Stay in France, Armand, I command you. They'll find a cure to it, sometime. I can offer you the best physicians, the best institutions, the best medicine..."
Like you did with my mother? Armand thought. Will you lock me in the castle, too?
"I don't need to be cured of anything, father." He retorted. "In fact, I'm not here to talk about myself."
"Well, I'm wondering." said Monsieur, momentarily abandoning the grounds of the battle against his son's sexuality, where he was soon venturing again, to try to win. "Why are you here, then, and not at that church already?"
There is no church in Buddhism, Armand wanted to explain. But he knew his father did not want to learn. "It's about my sister."
"My half-sister, Catherine."
"That inconsequential girl! The way she dropped the Sorbonne was outrageous! We still can't believe she went after you..."
"Weren't you aware of her trip?"
"No, we weren't."
"Well, I believe your..." How should he mention Celeste? Maybe in the meantime their status had changed. "...lover was."
"Celly?" Monsieur de Montbelle enjoyed calling her that, but just when Celeste was not listening. "No, she wasn't." He seemed to consider something, or make some sort of calculation. "But why that sudden interest in Catherine?"
"I tried to ignore my sister, but now I want to be just to her." Before I leave this world, Armand thought, but it sounded too melodramatic, threatening even, to be pronounced. "Can I beseech you to recognize her as your daughter?"
"She is not my daughter, Armand." Monsieur de Montbelle was taken aghast.
"Why do you deny it? Or am I not your son, as well?"
"Of course you are. But she isn't." Monsieur promptly dismissed it.
"I should probably have brought her along with me to this meeting. You have never had this conversation face to face with her, have you?" Armand insisted, feeling he owned it to the girl. "Do you know how she suffers with all this?"
"Brought her along?" Monsieur smiled somberly. "How?"
Armand was very conscious of the way his father picked certain words, choosing elements of his son's sentences, to redirect the conversation towards grounds of his own preference.
"I believe she is in Paris." Armand proposed, carefully.
"No, Armand, she isn't."
"I believe she is..." Armand had just decided to direct the conversation himself. "I saw Carlo today."
"Saw him as in met him?" Monsieur de Montbelle gasped. His eyes were fixed on his son, who unfortunately had chosen the chair farthest from the table lamp, to suspiciously remain partially in the shadows. Despite Celeste's exquisite taste for decoration, he had to order his secretary to buy a new and more functional lamp, or a brighter bulb, immediately, for Monsieur liked to observe his visitors, more than to be observed. "Are you doing drugs, Armand?"
"No, I did not meet him, but I saw him walking down a street today." Armand decided to sustain his lie, guessing his father actually knew and would reveal Carlo's true directions.
"Utterly impossible." Monsieur shook his head to vehemently discard such a possibility. "They are not in Paris. Not even in France."
"Where are they?" Armand pressed.
"Do you think I'd tell you where that doomed boy is, Armand?" Monsieur de Montbelle gave a half smile, to make his son understand he could not be so easily manipulated. He calculated farther ahead than most of his opponents. And then he spoke softly, as if to himself. "I wonder what he has got to drive you both out of your minds..." Raising his voice again, loaded with contempt, he demanded, "Is he a dealer of some sort of ecstatic drug? Does he run a mad sect himself, who worship him? Please, tell me what sort of filthy pimp he is!"
The idea of Carlo dealing drugs made Armand smile. He had grown addicted indeed to his friends charms, to his honesty, his loyalty, his simplicity, to his naivety -- if those qualities could ever be called drugs, then mankind needed to be heavily addicted on a whole lot more of them. As to worship him, be it for his beauty, or for his kindness, that was perfectly understandable. Like a spring from the highest fields, Carlo used to be the purest, sweetest man Armand had ever known. But all that had collapsed, once Carlo chose Catherine over him. His ex-friend hadn't abruptly become a bad person, it was not that -- but now his loyalty belonged to Catherine. And they lived in each other's arms in some remote corner of the world that would remain unknown to Armand.
"Pimp? Do you believe I'd fall in love with a pimp, Gaston?" Armand laughed, and decided to tease his father. "No matter how endowed he is, I am sure..."
The bold mention of Carlo's physical attributes immediately disgusted and angered Monsieur. "This interview is over, Armand. We have wasted enough time, and I have a busy day ahead. Please excuse me." And the elder man started lifting himself off the chair.
"No, it is not over." Armand reclined against the back of his chair, indicating he was going nowhere. "I came here to straighten things about Catherine, and I am not leaving until you commit to treating her fairly."
"But I do!" Monsieur cried. "I do! I always have! I've always treated her as if she were my own child -- though she isn't! I'm telling you, Catherine is not your half-sister, Armand."
"How can you be so positive about it?"
Monsieur fumbled in the lower drawer, taking out one of the compromising dossiers for which he was famous and feared. Threateningly accurate, Monsieur de Montbelle's dossiers were essential to the certainty with which he exuded authority, and to the extent of power he exerted on his peers -- men who might be socially, economically or politically more influential than him, even more wealthy, but not as well informed as Monsieur, who had in Celeste Mortinné a great ally.
"Take a look at this." He said, handling it to Armand. "I give you five minutes, and if you still feel the need, you can pose your questions."
Grand Duke Felix Michael Pavlov Rostoff, Prince Albert Nikolai Stepan Rostoff, Prince Paul Sergei Boris Rostoff, Prince Vladimir Dmitri Rostoff, Prince Aleksander Nikolai Rostoff... The long list opening the dossier indicated that the Rostoffs were a persistent, fruitful lineage of male aristocrats. Originally from St. Petersburg, with branches in Riga and Moscow, informed the Almanacs. Armand flipped quickly through the boring newspapers cuts that followed, most of them in Russian, very few translated in French. Gossip columns from a Cannes periodic covered the family members vacations on the French Riviera for the three decades preceding the First World War. Addresses, copies of birth certificates, letter and postcards, even telegrams composed the Rostoff dossier. Armand thought more fascinating and worth examining a series of yellowed black and white photographs, indicating sadness more than beauty was transmitted along with rather pure, heavy Slavic features in the Rostoff dynasty. One boy, several young adults and older men -- but no women --, almost all of them clad in military attire, looking dull or stiff in their studio poses. Dumbfounded, Armand checked again the name on the cover of the dossier -- Prince Aleksander Nikolai Rostoff, the last name appearing in the long list, when the lineage seemed to have come to an end. Below his name was the date of his birth, in St. Petersburg -- but also of his passing, in Paris.
"I don't understand it. Who is he? Aleksander..."
"He was Catherine's father."
"A Russian prince?" Armand lowered his eyes to the dossier again, trying to find the one picture of the single man he had found truly attractive among the lot. Despite a dandiesque mustache, the youngster was the only Rostoff to spot a smile on his lips and eyes, and to sport a tuxedo instead of an uniform. Handsome indeed. For whatever reason, he hoped that was Prince Aleksander, but the name and date on the back of the photo had been erased. "Does she know it?"
"I believe she doesn't. And I am not the one supposed to tell her, when her mother denies the truth herself."
"I don't understand it."
"You blame me for having had a lover, don't you, Armand?" Monsieur smiled bitterly. "Well, my lover had a lover herself. This impoverished Russian prince."
"Can I make a copy of this dossier, Gaston?"
"No you can't. And why would you?"
"I want to read it with more attention."
"You have nothing to do with this story. Even less than I do. Simply forget it."
"But Catherine is entitled to know!" Armand protested. Would that new fact put an end to her vengeance, he wondered. If Armand would help Catherine so thoroughly as to find her a new aristocratic cradle -- she might, even, release Carlo?
Monsieur de Montbelle shook his head.
"This is not for us to decide." He shrugged.
"A Russian prince... was Catherine's father?" I whistled.
"That's what my father believed in, though your grandmother denied it."
Blue blood ran in my veins! If not from the De Montbelle, from the Rostoff family. It felt like my ex-uncle Armand had momentarily taken one lollipop from my mouth to immediately present another, even tastier.
"I believe your mother is in Russia right now, isn't she? Probably researching her origins, don't you think?" Armand rejoined.
Concomitantly to have been trying to fight her way into the De Montbelle family through French courts, Catherine had continually pursued her very personal obsession for Russia. From her early love for Russian writers, that had turned into that abandoned thesis of a Russian mystic, until her Masters studies that had enabled her to teach Russian literature, my mother must have been unconsciously following the thread of her origins, led by instincts running with her blood.
She had mentioned something about researching our family origins indeed, in our last lengthy conversation over the phone, years ago, when I still dated Gabriel. But now the question was -- when had she shifted her interest from the De Montbelle to the Rostoff household, and why? Had she finally had access to that dossier Armand read in the 70s -- and why only now?
"Can I ask you a question, Armand?" I posed, carefully.
"Of course you can." Armand's eyes was again on my body, and after leaving my landscape of muscles, he closed them for a moment. They were full of sadness when he opened them again. "But I see you are cold, Laurent. Don't you want to change into something warmer?" His melancholy revealed to be a sort of nostalgia, when he next asked, "We could walk to the other side of the island to watch the sun set, how about that? It doesn't happen as an spectacle everyday, but today seems to be the case, we are lucky. And then we'll have dinner, while we talk."
And I felt I was finally on the Île du Blanchomme of my conception, where my father and Armand had done just that, every single day.
The Rostoffs I refer to in this episode are supposedly a fictional dynasty from the short story "Love in the Night" by Scott Fitzgerald, that I have loved -- both the writer and the story -- from the first time I read it -- and ever since, always again upon re-reading it, like just before writing this episode of The Last Canvas.
You can read it online HERE.
For more background on the love triangle between Armand, Carlo and Catherine, and how he decided to become a monk and finally accept his half-sister, please see the links in the footnotes of the previous episode.
Thanks for reading!