"You are quite welcome to enter the shop as well, Monsieur."
From the outside he can only guess the definite silhouette of the clerk inside. "Right, of course," he hastens to announce in French, which is tinted with an English accent. "I just enjoyed the magnificent design of the front, Monsieur--" he looks up and reads out loud: "Niguet." Above the window front the letters are painted in a matte bronze: Chemiserie Niguet. "Chemiserie?" Because the shop is overflowing with supple green plants and delicate flowers.
The clerk laughs an unsurprised and slow, but sincere little laugh. "I'm sorry for the confusion. Both isn't correct, but I rather liked the letters from my predecessor. I think they fit the rest of the front very well." Still standing behind his counter he wipes his hands at his apron. "There is a small brass tile to the left of your head. It says what's really inside."
Joris could have sworn the clerk gave him a conspirational wink, but the distance makes it hard to be sure. "As if one could overlook this visual feast when looking inside," Joris says.
C. & H. Huit, florist, says the tile.
Joris doesn't feel wise-ass, just relaxed and chatty. Last night had been long and fruitful. He would see the gorgeous lady again tomorrow evening. Her bad luck at the roulette table, her eventually empty purse, and her obvious interest in him were his personal luck.
The florist's smile is broad --Joris can see it clearer now he squints his eyes-- he takes a slight bow, and opens his hands. "Please, the invitation is still valid, Monsieur. My name is Henri Huit and I'd be happy to show you around if you're interested in the architecture and interior. Even if it's not flowers you want to purchase."
Joris grins and steps inside. He takes off his hat and places it on the worn, but clean counter. The different flowers' intense, mingled fragrance almost knock him out. "Well," he says while letting his gaze glide between manifold developed petals and magnificently embellished wooden and brass details. "Unfortunately one cannot wear flowers instead of shirts. You would make a fortune here, I'm sure."
Huit's eyes widen and his smile instantly falters. He can't be much older than himself, Joris is sure. Late twenties, both of them.
Hastily Joris puts up his hands. "I'm sorry, I meant no disrespect, Monsieur Huit. Your plants are flawless and the sprays are most tasteful!" He sighs and is quick to continue: "My manners are those of a ill-bred pixie, at least that's what my older brother used to tell me." He doesn't want Huit to look at him like this: affected, slightly panicked. "He even used to say I'm a changeling, but my not very secret secret is: I'm just our father's bastard."
The following heartbeats thunder in Joris' ear, and the silence slaps in his face.
Huit slowly finds his countenance again and divests himself of the apron. Then he pulls a monocle out of the breast pocket of his waistcoat, which is of the same rich colour like his eyes, moss drenched with rain. He polishes the lens and clears his throat.
"Damn," Joris curses under his breath, and then louder: "Now I apologize for throwing my past at your face, Monsieur Huit, and for embarrassing us both." He reaches for his hat, but can't retrieve it because Huit's fingers grab his wrist.
"No, I apologize, Monsieur." Well-coifed Huit then lets go of his sleeve, attaches the monocle to his right eye, and looks directly at Joris. "My reaction was completely inappropriate." Then he comes around the corner, shoves Joris towards it again as if to signalize to not move away so fast.
Huit flies through his selection of plants, only to hand Joris shortly after a very, very neat--no, stunning bouquet. There are ivory-colored lilies (or at least Joris thinks of them as lilies, because actually he's a gardening failure) and smaller blossoms that look like fragile, vermillion snowflakes, all held together with a few strings of something that remind Joris of a delicate version of sturdy ivy.
"Oh," is all Joris could say as he retrieves them.
Huit smiles at him. Outside the gas lights are lit one by one. "You are always welcome, Monsieur--?"
"Du Lac," Joris mutters, still surprised by the gift.
"Monsieur du Lac, then." Huit puts the monocle back into its pocket and pats the little dent it makes there. "As I said, my invitation for a little tour is still valid, but unfortunately I have to deliver something urgent. That's why I'm closing right after you will have left."
Joris nods behind the flowers. Their heavy scent makes his thoughts slow.
"Please drop by any time again," Huit emphasizes as he shoos out Joris elegantly, placing his hat on top of his head, tilting it a bit to one side--just as Joris uses to wear it.
"I will," Joris finds himself promising and staggers home.
Huit is standing in front of his cupboards, a basket with moss is riding on his hips. Joris' formerly confident stride comes to a halt.
Imagine you return home from a long, strenuous day, and there she is, your young and lovely wife doing the laundry in your kitchen. A skein of walnut brown air obscures half her face, but she heard you and turns her tender head a bit to gaze coyly at you over her shoulder…
"Ah, Monsieur du Lac," Huit calls and hurries to store the basket beneath the counter. He beams at Joris. "What a pleasure. You dared to return. I hope you're not going to complain about the bouquet I gave to you two weeks ago?"
Joris shakes off the vision and enters the shop with a smile. "Well, I had to dispose of them lately." Originally he wanted to gift the flowers to Roulette Lady, but he found himself unable to: the flowers had delighted his cretin eyes and he had found just the perfect spot for them in his sparsely furnished rooms near the Kapellekerk in the Marolles district.
"I see," Huit says with a conspirational half-wink.
Joris lifts his hat, hoping it looks fancy as he twirls it weightlessly between his fingers. "Maybe you have another bunch of lilies?"
He's almost shocked by Huit's clear and warm laugh. "They weren't exactly lilies, Monsieur du Lac. Hippeastrum, Knight's-star-lilies to be precise. And if I had to be honest: I didn't think chaste lilies would fit you that well."
Joris snorts wordlessly, but amused. Relieved. "You're a good observer, Monsieur Huit." Compared to the lilies he had seen with depictions of Mary Mother of Christ these star-lilies looked more roughened-up and severe. Not as mollified and clean as Mary's flowers.
"Well, thank you. I try my best." Huit leans closer to his counter and inclines his head a bit as if to say, Come closer. I have something more to say. He seems to be in a good temper.
Joris draws near enough for Huit to murmur: "Have you been at the Universal Exposition already?"
The whole city seems to be crazy about it, the king even implemented a temporary garden for the Mons des Arts, a huge site once densely populated but Leopold wanted control or space or whatever. So he brought down the houses and left vast nothingness--until the exposition.
Joris laughs, "Of course. It's hard to avoid it, actually."
Huit draws back and seems to examine him from head to toes, head inclined slightly to one side. "I haven't. The flower gardens are supposed to be extraordinary opulent."
"I must admit I didn't pay too much attention to the flowers when I went." Joris had been busy watching the ladies stroll and chatting them up eventually. He smiles.
"Then join me, please," Huit asks with a formal bow. "I'd be very glad to explain you the differences between lily and amaryllis."
They make appointments with each other, about once a week at the Jubelpark's flower site. Huit is eager to explain Joris how he cherishes the different phases of blossoming of the different flowers.
And Joris finds himself more and more interested.
They stroll well-fashioned, and sit together often without much talk. They found they both like listening to the buzzing conversations of others: some are utterly lacking in content, some are almost over-burdened with deep meaning. But they are all well-purfled.
Their rather short meetings usually end with two cups of strong mocha, as black and sweet as a midsummer night. Sometimes Huit orders a glass of cognac to go with, sometimes Joris orders a glass or two of middle-aged port. Then they let the proud citizens roll past the little patio, and just watch them.
Joris offers him cigarettes; sometimes Huit accepts one, and when he smokes them languidly his eyes drift shut.
Huit likes to express his opinions via agile eyebrows and throat-clearing.
Joris likes to express his opinions via unambiguous leers and snorting.
One late afternoon Huit seems agitated, his eyes start moving almost feverish. He sweeps the sweat off his palms and into the satin fabric of his vest for the fourth time since Joris has entered the florist.
Huit's uncharacteristically rolled-up shirt sleeves allow glimpses of metal on his skin, close to his right elbow. As he stretches to retrieve a box from an upper shelf Joris sees that they are two bracelets. They don't jingle against each other, but clasp the forearm, and seem to be of similar brazen quality like the partly polished metal decorum of the shop.
Huit makes a false step and Joris is almost sure he heard a minor expletive.
"Are you feeling unwell?" Joris hurries around the counter, closer to Huit. He refrains from feeling for his temperature, because any movement towards him apparently unsettles him more.
Huit's gaze zones out, past Joris, and through the window front. His head is tilted as if he tries to listen to something inside his head, his body. Maybe his mind.
"Henri," Joris tries again. "Look at me."
The sudden use of proper Huit's Christian name does the trick, and his eyes slit. He focuses on Joris. "Pardon me, Monsieur du Lac."
"It's Joris," Joris mutters irritated. "I just called you by your name."
"Joris, then." Henri nods a tiny nod and forces himself to smile. "I'm afraid I have to ask you a favour." He grips the top of the counter tighter, and looks directly at Joris whose throat suddenly feels like made of felt. "Could you please stay here in my place? Just for a few more minutes until a friend collects an urgent delivery." Sweat trickles off his temples, he actually shies away from Joris. "I feel… a bit off."
"His name is Jérôme. He'll arrive between six and seven, as usual. A cheerful young spirit, a good boy." Henri's voice is becoming smoother and sends weird chills down Joris' spine. "You can lock the shop afterwards and keep the keys until next time you… come by again. I have a second set." Colour flees from his face.
His behaviour reminds Joris of Benjamin, back at home. But heroine withdrawal has made him also snappy and short-fused. Henri only seems to grow nervous and detached.
Joris rubs his eyes. "It's no problem at all," he says amiably. He knows that Henri's quarters are just above the shop. "Go upstairs and lay down. I'll wait until the boy has left and then lock up the door."
Henri manages to nod again and wipes his brow with a lace handkerchief. "Thank you, Joris. I'm terribly sorry." Then he drops his keys from his vest pocket into Joris' outstretched hand and stumbles past him, climbing the stairs under great effort. Joris thinks he hears him groaning slightly.
"Do you need a helping hand?" Joris asks behind him, unsure how much privacy Henri prefers.
There, definitely a moan. Then a deep chuckle and an appalled whisper. "No, please don't." And Henri disappears from Joris' sight.
"I've never seen you around before," Jérôme says in a not un-kind way; he seems rather interested. Joris turns the key in the front door's lock, checks the handle: closed. "And now you have the spare key. That's quite a promotion!" The boy laughs and nods to the back of the shop.
There are two more doors and Jérôme shoves him towards the sturdier. Joris isn't sure where the door leads to exactly. Henri only said something about 'a delivery to be collected'.
Jérôme is probably about ten years younger than Joris, with an astute gaze, and a big, smiling mouth. His clothes are impeccable and pricey, but something in his gait tells Joris that he probably wasn't born in them.
"No, it's the smaller key," Jérôme prompts when Joris fumbles with the bunch Huit had dropped into his palm.
"You know your way around?"
Jérôme's bright brown eyes sparkle. "One would expect that. I come here every other week or so. Henri sends for me, and I come and get them."
"Them?" Joris dares to ask as he turns the key in it's lock. "What is it?"
Jérôme laughs for an answer. "Well, what do you think?"
And then, voilà, the heavy door swings open well-oiled. All of a sudden they are outside the narrow brick house, in the private refuge of Henri's backyard. He wouldn't have expected the middle-high fig tree, and over there is even a small kitchen garden. Flaming courgette flowers are adorning the meticulous rows of soil. Next to them are probably beans clambering up their sticks.
Joris feels like trespassing into something intimate. He then understands Jérôme's earlier remark.
"I don't know," Joris eventually acknowledges. "Plants?" He feels extraordinarily dumb. And he can't put away how distressed Henri had looked before.
Jérôme rolls his eyes. "Now you need the very old, long key, Monsieur." He is already heading towards a smaller wooden shack in the corner to the right, and Joris almost overlooked the glinting, chthonic construction in the middle. Presiding over the small backyard it's intriguing Joris.
"You can call me Joris," he says slowly, not exactly following Jérôme.
The boy sighs. "Okay, then. Joris. Look, could you please open the lock here?" He pokes at the shack's lock. "I'm already a bit late." He looks up. "What? Oh." He whistles, then laughs. "Well, God damn me. He's quick."
In the dusk Joris makes an asking face.
"He designed his own greenhouse. Is building it himself, also." Jérôme shrugs. "Okay, sometimes I help him, but not as often as I liked to. After all I'm the Procureur's assistant." There is a good amount of pride making his voice smoother.
Joris snorts. "You are what?" Another part of him wonders why Henri never told him about the greenhouse.
Jérôme waves him off. "Are you unlocking this now or what?"
Joris does what's asked from him and after a little bit of rummaging inside Jérôme triumphantly extracts a rather decent-sized pouch.
"Is this something," Joris lowers his voice in a conspirational fashion, "not exactly legal?"
Jérôme's laugh is definitely too loud to let him be part in something illegal, but then he also keeps his voice down. "Don't tell them I showed you," he says as he unknots the soft pouch and turns it carefully upside down. Two brownish, ugly balls roll unto his palm, and he looks at them fondly.
"We're doing this for two onions in a velvet pouch?!" Joris cries exasperated.
Well, in the end Joris helps Henri with the greenhouse.
It took five very polite rejections and he literally had to beg Henri to let him help.
"Oh, my. Joris. What is it?" Henri looked genuinely concerned, yet definitely better than on that evening two days earlier. "Are you in trouble? Do you need to hide away?"
Joris sighed. "Please, just let me help you somehow. I… I don't want money. I just want to do something during daytime, so I'm tired enough at night."
Henri stared at him. "I know that feeling," he eventually said with calm. He shook off one or two thoughts and smiled. "I hope you have some spare clothes that can undergo some stains?"
"You bet I have, Monsieur." Joris felt relief surge up and clouding his brains. "Oh, and who is C. Huit? Why don't they help as well? I have never seen anyone else here; I must say you live a decent bachelor's life."
Henri's smile was a little bit forced and very much distressed. "Catherine," he says. "She was my sister. She's dead, unfortunately."
Damn. "Oh no, I'm sorry, Henri." Joris put a gentle hand on Henri's shoulder. "My mouth just won't learn to shut it."
"It's not your mouth," Henri had said and slowly swiped away Joris' touch. "It's my heart."
If you asked him later he would say he wasn't sure why he thought it was a good idea to force his way into Henri's garden at night. There simply was no reason at all--except the thrill of being possible, maybe.
So Joris finds his cheek pressed against the smooth surface, his breath clouds the glass of the greenhouse wall. Things poke into his hips, his sides; into his thighs, the small of his back: metal railings, wooden planks. Flesh, and something sharp and pointy, he can feel it through his layers of clothing. His frock coat is pulled from his frame, yanking at his arms.
Joris is breathing heavily now, shocked by the sudden assault, and he stares at the dampness of the pane in front of his eyes.
"Not. A. Word," a mouth behind him rasps silently.
Joris' ear, it threatens to fall off. He carefully tries to shake his head, no. No, not a word. A sob crawls up his throat. No, please stop. He has never been touched like this before. Never knew how it could feel, would feel if someone stronger came this close to him. Handled him like this. No, please do continue. Shame surges up and almost constricts his lungs, because he's so damn sure that he can smell some undiluted desire in the night air. And he's not sure about the exact originator…
The rumble at his shoulders resemble a deep, deep laugh. "Good boy." Pleased, very pleased.
Another shove, this time there is no doubt about which part of the creature it is now. Joris' legs are spread a bit wider, he feels the insane warmth of the other rubbing against his behind: it encases his upper body, his arms. Delicate fingers snake their way down to Joris', and entwine with them. There is dirt beneath the long, long nails, no claws-- and Joris hopes he won't catch an infection.
Oh God, he thinks hysterically. Joris grapples for balance against the unfinished wall, but his damp cheek slips, and they both almost tumble to the ground. There lay Henri's bracelets, half-covered with rainy mud. A pang of concern rips through Joris. If they lie there, then what did the assaulter do to Henri?
"Watch out," the other says as he straightens them both again. He shoves more of Joris against the glass.
A whimper escapes Joris and before he can stop himself, "I'm sorry," and it's heart-felt, but his shirt is ripped from his frame. His coat is probably sodden now beyond fixing. It was his favorite, lined with real carmine silk. He hopes it's still in one piece. "Oh God," he adds voicelessly. I'm sorry for slipping. For breaking into this garden at night. Maybe he is just assaulted by the very reason why Henri hadn't told him about the kitchen garden and the greenhouse before?
"Neighbours," the looming shadow behind him adds under his breath, almost apologizing.
Yes, yes, of course, Joris frantically thinks. He would be detected in a more than inappropriate position if they chose this very moment to open their little windows and have a good look at the noises outside. He'd loathe to compromise Henri and his reputation in his environment for any reason.
Because after all it's Henri who rented the whole backyard for himself. So all trouble there must be easily attributed to him, Henri. Monsieur Huit, witty and soft-spoken connoisseur of rare Asparagales.
"Henri," Joris dares to whisper. He does not dare to address the forceful being behind him directly, just inclines his head a bit. "Is he alright? Did you do anything… to him?" He stares at a heap of freshly dug soil below; at the bracelets there. He resolves upon ignoring the creeping vines along his feet.
"Henri," the other repeats behind him solemnly. Rolls around the vowels, finishes the name with a hurtful hiss. The pressure against Joris falters and the grip around his wrists breaks away.
This time Joris slumps onto his hands and knees, his shoulder bumps against a pillar, and he tries to get a look at the assaulter. It's not easy through the mess his hair has become, but he manages.
Behind him, sitting on his heels, is Henri himself with his head cast down. There is no doubt about it, although he doesn't look right in the almost non-existing lights of the backyard.
Joris gasps, "Henri." Then he tries to reach out for him.
"Oh God," Henri rasps. "Please don't." He looks like ripped from a nightmare, tired and weakened. His eyes glower with reflections of the few light sources beyond the walls.
Joris stops mid-movement. He remembers that request. "Alright," his voice wavers.
Without any Brilliantine the rugged skeins of Henri's hair are veiling his face. It looks like there are vines crawling over his skin, like his delicate ears became all pointy and otherworldly. He is frantically digging in the mud at Joris' feet, exhuming the bracelets. Henri doesn't care for the dirt clinging to the metal as he re-fastens them on his arm.
The air around Henri starts to gleam, twirls and draws eventually towards him. Dust and sweat bursts from Henri's frame, for a second his hair, torso and arms are drawn upwards. It's like he does a little jump, then sinks down again to fold himself without consciousness against Joris.
A little yelp from his own throat surprises Joris, but he catches Henri before he glides into the soil. Even breathing indicates that his friend is something like asleep.
Almost every fiber within Joris screams RUN! but he cannot bring himself to do so. He changes places with Henri and folds him in a seating position against the pillar whose gentle, pale face looks still harassed while asleep; he is only wearing plain trousers and a once probably crisply white cotton button-down. No vest, no keys, Joris thinks. Damn. He pats the pockets of Henri's trousers, but they are empty.
Joris tries to make out the door between backyard and shop. It's unlocked, yet the inside seems to be unlit and dark.
"Fantastic," Joris mutters sardonically to himself. At least he has stopped shaking allover. Then he sheds the remnants of his own tattered shirt and rises. Pats down his trousers for his emergency cigarette and sticks it to his lips. He knows where Henri keeps the matches in a drawer in the counter. But first, he tells himself, first he has to get Henri inside.
Joris half-kneels beside him, drapes one of Henri's arms (the one with the bracelets, he sees now) around his neck, and drags them both into a somewhat upright position. A groan seeps from Henri's lips, but he stays asleep, and his legs don't do their part of the walking. Somehow Joris manages to shamble towards the dark door and inside, without too much noise and without loud bumps against tools on their way.
Then he drops Henri carefully and climbs the stairs to look if the door to his quarters was open as well. It isn't, and Joris has no idea where Henri left the key. He chiefly considers breaking down the door, but guesses that's too much. So he tries to cushion Henri's sleep with some hemp bags from outside, and some straw which is actually meant for the roses.
Henri still hasn't moved by himself. Specks of dirt cling to his clothes and skin, but Joris finds himself unable to do more. Every fibre of his brain screams NOW RUN YOU FOOL! This man is dangerous.
And before Joris can think about it any harder he's on his way, running through the backyard and climbing back over the brick wall, and he runs and runs and runs until his chest threatens to burst and he has to catch his breath leaning against a gas lantern which casts its aura of gentle gloom around him like a royal ermine.
After the nightly meeting with Henri Joris is at a loss about what to do. Also, where is his favourite coat? Jérôme should be able to help him out, right? Because facing Henri isn't just yet on his agenda, so Joris wants at least some information.
I'm sorry this is taking me so long! But before I'm drowning myself in Yuletide research stuff I thought it would be nice to at least post the next chapter of this thing--which means it will consist of about three parts now.
I hope you enjoy this little interlude. Feedback, comments and/or kudos are very welcome. :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The following week is full of booze and hazardous companions to play cards with; the gentlemen have bad reputation, and the tough ladies have tiny waists and enormous hats. They reek of heavy blossoms and talcum.
Joris' nights become longer, and the days become his nights. He seldom wakes before 4 p.m. and has soon forgotten how the midday sun envelopes the market at the Place du Jeu de Balle when it's buzzing with merchants and clients, and later with beggars, pigeons and sparrows who fight for left-overs.
At the end of an especially late night (or, well, early morning) Joris slips on the stairs to his room. He hits his head and chest hard, and a long bruise is instantly ripping the skin of his cheek. With a groan he stumbles into his bed, and an angry floor mate yells behind him and throws Joris' door shut.
He wakes the next day feeling beaten up and just horrible. The inside of his mouth tastes stale and dry; his lips are split and there is blood crusting the fabric of his pillow.
Joris also remembers where he originally had left behind his frock coat, and that there would still be cigarettes stored in the breast pocket over his heart.
He rises and throws his legs over the edge of his bed. Stares at the empty flower vase across the room. With a sigh he checks his appearance in the mirror and scratches off some dirt specks. Even splashes some fresh water in his face, mostly to remove the dried blood on his smeared cheek. He's a bit shocked about how tired and clueless he looks.
Joris then rummages for clean clothes and decides to go looking for Jérôme. If the boy had been right with being the Procureur's assistant then it shouldn't be that difficult to find him, right?
So Joris walks down the rather broad Hoogstraat, past small, ill-lit shops and dubious entrepreneurs. He buys five cigarettes and smokes one of them at a tiny bistro's counter. He can't refuse the two raisin buns the old woman with the coffee pot shoves at him. She's fond of him since he had stumbled upon the bistro months ago and today she says, "Haven't seen you for a while, boy."
Afterwards he puts his hat back on his head and tips its rim as a goodbye. He continues his way until he reaches Kristinastraat where he turns left and follows the slight rise. The neighborhood is becoming more seedier the closer he gets: he can already see the Palace of Justice looming on the hill at the end of his little hike.
Good Lord. He had always prayed to never have something to do there: when you live in the Marolles (by choice or by birth wouldn't matter) you better hope you never have business to conduct there. The Palais looks like an over-fed animal, ready to pounce you at any minute. A lazy lion with flies swarming around his head and ass. The flanks are specked with crusted shit, and he growls at his ladies to bring more of the destitute, of the slow and the weak. And somewhere at his feet there are the dirty mice of the Marolles, living in their shady huts, and dishing out their poor meals.
Joris is glad he is at least wearing his second best coat and the still quite expensive hat. His confident stride and the stash of papers he had grabbed hastily on his way out of his rooms make him look important enough to not be stopped. But he can't help himself stumbling the last steps into the building.
He knows now why they call the vastness behind the vestibule 'Hall of the Lost Steps': he's not sure he can see the ceiling and most of all he has no idea where to go. Severe looking stiff men are buzzing around him, trailing their black robes behind them like devils' tails. The staccato of their heels is imperative, and Joris has to step aside, closer to the wall, to be out of their way.
Next to him is something looking like a porter's lodge. It's not occupied, but in front of it are desks and right there sits a middle-aged man reading a newspaper. He's almost hidden behind a veil of cigarette smoke; one hand cradles his chin and sometimes strokes his ash blond goatee beard. He's wearing a classic three-piece, or would be if it wasn't for his coat carelessly draped behind him on the backrest of the bench, and he seems to be totally unimpressed by the business conducting around him.
"Excuse me," Joris addresses him as he grapples towards the reader's desk. He's surprised he's slightly out of breath.
The man looks at him with bored eyes. "Huh?"
Joris catches his fleeing vigor at its neck and shoves it back on the tip of his tongue. "I have some urgent files to deliver to the Procureur." He shakes the bunch of papers in his grip; they are already sodden with the sweat of his palms. "Can you tell me where to find his assistant?"
The newspaper crumbles almost flat onto the desk. One sharp eyebrow rises from its ennui. "Well, put them here." An index finger points at the free space between him and Joris; the paper is a foreign one with letters Joris can't decipher. The other hand directs an expensive looking cigarette holder back to the thin lips.
Joris' brow creases. He can bluff his way out of many a game. "No, I have to deliver them personally."
The other harshly laughs out a blow of smoke. "That's why I told you to put them here."
"I promised Jérôme to hand them to nobody else," Joris hastens to say, seasoned with the rest of his slowly fading confidence.
The man reclines against the backrest and musters him; his waistcoat is flawlessly tailored. The band collar of his ivory shirt has a distinctively Asian cut. "Jérôme, huh?" Another drag from his cigarette. "Listen, I know you are lying and it's in your interest to have a good reason." He points the cigarette holder towards Joris' papers. "These are letters from your brother, plus the answers you never dispatched. And to come into the Palace of Justice and lie in my face... I can't believe it." He allows himself a little snort. "I am the Procureur. You better state that good reason now."
Shit, Joris thinks, and before he can think some more, he blurts: "Henri Huit." Maybe it's his friend's name again that would save him like a prayer-- or like a spell.
There is a vein at the Procureur's temple and it's pulsating. He murmurs, "Of all things now." He then reaches beneath the desk for a small bell and rings it twice. A sharp, clear sound weaves through the buzz.
Joris can only stare at the Procureur and two, three heartbeats later he sees a familiar head bustling towards them through the hall.
Jérôme nods unsure at Joris as he recognizes him. "Good day, Monsieur Joris."
"Oh, Monsieur Joris it is?" The Procureur doesn't even try to feign manners. He coughs, points first at Jérôme, then at Joris. "Fix this," is all he says with a stern gaze before he rises, grabs his newspapers, and disappears into the crowd with long, purposeful strides.
Joris takes a deep breath and tries to regain his calm. "Jérôme," he eventually nods towards the young man. "Do you have a moment?"
"I think the Procureur just said so," Jérôme says smiling. He grabs Joris' arm and steers him back towards the huge doors where he had just entered this colossus. "Let's go outside. It's a bit packed here, isn't it?"
"I'm glad you also think so," Joris mumbles and they both go outside, down the steps.
Life is also buzzing here, solicitors and lawyers, attorneys and judges, they all need something to drink and eat as well. They need books and some fine garments to clothe themselves in. They don't want to travel all day to their place of employment, so where once the shacks of peons stood clinging to each other, there's now this broad vastness of this square, and nice houses to live in are emerging, encircling it one by one.
"It's the old Gallows Hill." Jérôme has followed Joris' wandering eyes. "It fits, doesn't it?"
Joris has to laugh, but his midriff is still a bit hurting from the night of the assault. It stings and he holds his side; he points towards a bench and they both sit down.
"Oh, damn. Was that Henri?" Jérôme mysteriously knows what he's looking at despite Joris' attempt to act normal.
Joris nods with a small laugh.
"Did he… do anything to you?"
Joris thinks of the rough shoves, the pressure of hungry flesh at his behind. The goddamned creeping vines around his calves, slowly pulling them apart.
"No," he says and a quick glance at Jérôme tells him there is no reason for trying to lie at him as well. "He just… shoved at me and ripped my clothes. And I miss my coat since then." He offers the other a cigarette, but Jérôme declines. Joris takes a deep drag lest his hands start shaking again. "It was my favourite, you know?"
"I'm sorry," Jérôme says.
Joris snorts. "Why would you be? It's not your fault, is it." He picks loose tobacco from his lips and flicks it somewhere between the feet of the very important people waltzing by their bench.
"I should have warned you," Jérôme tries a bit helplessly. "You seemed so nice and if Henri trusted you…"
"Jérôme," Joris sounds really, really urgent now. "What's wrong with Henri?"
The boy looks afflicted. "I'm afraid I'm not really allowed to tell you," he says. "The Procureur will rip my head off."
Joris is exasperated. "What is his part in that, for God's sake?"
"He's supposed to keep Henri from doing harm."
"What-- what is Henri anyway?" There, he dared to ask it.
Jérôme looks at him as if he's exceptionally slow in his head. "The best gardener north of Paris, of course. Haven't you seen his gladioli?"
Joris' mouth hangs open. "No, I haven't." He wonders how much more Henri can hide from him. How much longer Henri thinks he can get away with it all.
"His gladioli," Jérôme begins, then trails off. "They are so beautiful. Both he and the Procureur love them." He laughs. "You remember the dirty onions? They are gladioli bulbs; Henri obtains them by order and on account of the Procureur. Henri has the best relations to other gladioli cultivators."
Joris wants to scream. "God damn, I don't care about the dratted flowers!"
"I'm sorry, but I can't tell you more." Jérôme looks at him intently. "I really mustn't. Ask him yourself." He shrugs. "Ask him what he receives in exchange for the bulbs."
Joris rakes his fingers through his greasy hair. "That's all?" He sounds disappointed. And yet Jérôme is right, of course. Joris has to see Henri again, hell, he wants to see him again.
Because they both have to apologize.
Maybe you know about the late Renaissance tulip craze where everybody went totally nuts about the flowers? There was something similar centuries later in the Netherlands, but only with gladioli. That gladioli craze took place roughly one, maybe two years later than this tale. So, Henri is rather ahead of his time, huh? I'm sure he made some decent money...
If you're interested in the Palais of Justice you can start reading here. I want to add that there are some very remarkable and very unknown pieces of Jean Delville to be seen inside (which no art travelling guide seems to care for), or at least they could be seen if anyone could be bothered with a decent illumination, for God's sake. Also, the building is fucking intimidating indeed; you feel reminded of Kafka's Before the Law. Guh!
Joris dares to face Henri, dares them to have a talk. But mostly it's indeed Henri who talks.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Joris is waiting outside, drinking from his hip flask, until eventually Henri steps outside to retrieve the advertisement sign from the pavement. The florist looks tired and pale; his hair is shorter now, and the cord of his apron has to encircle even less waist than before.
Joris swallows, then throws his cigarette butt between the wheels of a honking convertible. "Henri," he says and wonders about how raw his throat feels. By now he's sure that Henri's name must be some kind of spell.
And it is, because the creases of Henri's brow disappear; his eyes widen both in shock and, well, Joris would like to bet it's something like relief.
"Oh," is all his friend says. Sinewy arms let the board down again, suddenly bereft of any strength.
"Let me help you," Joris offers. He doesn't wait for Henri to approve, wiping away his soft hands and lifting the lettered wood. He knows it's usually placed inside, right against the window frame, so he puts it there.
Henri is still outside, staring at him like at a mirage.
"Well," Joris says. "You can cut it, you know? To say you didn't expect me to return. Because you clearly look like it. And yet here I stand." He knows his mouth does this crooked half grin he can't stop.
Henri's lips seem to move, but Joris can't hear a thing.
"Are you coming inside again or do you want to go for a walk?" Joris asks him calmly, as if Henri was a stray dog: one should not move with too much haste; but with palms open and a clear voice.
Henri shakes his head like he just remembered how to speak. "A walk, maybe. I think that would be better." He finally returns inside, unknots the apron, and hangs it onto its designated hook behind the counter. He looks at Joris from the corner of his eyes, a bright unhurried green. Trying to figure him out.
At this point Joris leans towards him over the surface of the counter; he beckons him with a slight tilt of his head, come a little closer. I have something to tell you. Wordlessly Henri complies, his head is slightly cant downwards. Without haste Joris lifts his heels, stands on his tiptoes only, and plants a chaste kiss onto Henri's forehead.
"Then let's go," Joris announces, his voice is trembling only a bit. "I know a nice, calm bistro without too many patrons. Although they all mind their own business." He tries a real smile now.
"Joris," Henri murmurs, and stares at him with big eyes. "What are you doing?"
"I don't know," Joris admits honestly. "But I thought conducting a conversation would be a good start."
Joris is used to coming here almost every noon; usually he just takes his late breakfast at the bar, or eats it at the small table at the window, staring outside, flipping through the newspaper. Watching the busier people floating by, discussing, dealing, laughing.
The waiter isn't used to patrons ordering as fair-spoken as Henri. Joris smirks and offers his friend his third last cigarette. They have settled on a small booth's bench with a low and slightly sodden table between them.
Henri takes the cigarette out of the case without looking at Joris. "It's nice here," he says, his eyes are following other patrons through the half shadows.
"Yeah," Joris remarks. "But don't do that." He gestures at his own eyes, then at Henri's and at the patrons. "It's considered as rude here." He strikes a match; Henri bows forward to light his smoke. "Leave them be and they won't bother us." Then he lights his own with the rest of the fire, and takes a deep drag.
"I see." Henri places his cigarette on the rim of the ashtray, rummages for the bundle he had retrieved from under the counter before they left, and positions it on the small table between them. The table legs aren't even, so the board shifts slightly along with the weight when Henri shoves the bundle towards him. He then continues to smoke unhurried.
Joris recognizes the fabric immediately. He unfolds it driven by childish Christmas anticipation, and a hysteric wave of relief crashes against his chest. "My coat," he almost cries, then stares at Henri. "I believe it's even cleaner than ever before." His brain lacks his mouth's speed, so he continues: "Never thought the dirt would come out. Hell, I never thought I would hold it in one piece again."
Henri clearly forces himself to look straight at him. "I want to apologize, Joris. My-- what I have done cannot be undone, and I'm very, very sorry you had to witness-- that." His irises aren't just green, but there are brighter shades, mossy tones. Thick jungle deepness, and almost turquoise hues at the rim.
Jérôme's words ring in Joris' ears. Ask him what he receives in exchange for the bulbs.
He decides the smoke in the corner of his mouth should be a good reason for not answering at once. He tries to refold the coat and puts it beside him on the bench. The waiter brings their beer, obviously senses the atmosphere hanging over them and leaves without a word.
Henri hasn't stop looking at him. It's his turn, now.
"Jérôme-- I went to him the other day," Joris starts. "He likes you, knows you for some time now, right?"
Henri's gaze has dropped to Joris' chin, or rather to the wall behind his throat, that's what it feels like at least. "He does," he confirms.
"Henri," Joris tries again, staring at the ash he tips from the cigarette. "What-- what are you? What is happening with you? Because you are probably the nicest person I ever met in my whole life, and I can't wrap my head around-- around that evening." There, he said it.
"I'm sorry, Joris--"
"You said that already--"
"--but I think you shouldn't have come."
"I-- What?" Joris blinks, then understands. "Oh, right. You mean the foray into your garden. I apologize for that, shouldn't have done that."
"That also. But I mean tonight. You should have stayed away. I thought--" Henri's gaze slowly crawls back to the rest of Joris' face. "I thought I made myself clear?"
Joris stares at him. "You-- uh, no? Not really. Or maybe, yes." He feels his cheeks fire up, remembers Henri's proximity that evening. The pressure and the heated whispers into his ear.
Henri registers his flashback and blows smoke out of his nostrils. Takes a rather decent swig of his beer and lets his shoulders sag down a little. "Then, what do you want from me, Joris? Do you want money? I know you do need some. I could pension you--"
Joris is aghast, "Are you serious?"
"--But that doesn't comply with-- earlier this evening," Henri rambles on. "I beg you, please. Don't make me leave this town. Please." Those last phrases are almost bereft of any sound.
Waves of sympathy, disappointment and confusion clash together in Joris' breast. "Stop it, Henri," he murmurs, and then takes the other's hands. They have started trembling, he catches them and puts them down on the table again, his own on top. Henri's fingers are as cold as ice. "Breathe, come on," he says shaking his head slowly.
There he was, thinking he was the one pummeled by Destiny, but the worse case was clearly sitting in front of him.
"Talk to me, Henri."
Henri hiccups a bit, his eyes not leaving Joris' hands; whispers: "I don't know where to start."
Joris feels slightly swamped. He did know it wouldn't be easy, but he's afraid it's getting out of control. "The bulbs, maybe?"
Unexpectedly, this makes Henri snort a small chuckle and look up at him again. "I'm afraid I have to start earlier." Reluctantly he draws his hands from beneath Joris', but leaves them with a pat. Then he pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. "So, what did Jérôme tell you?"
"Not much," Joris says. The imminent tension leaving them for a few heartbeats. "Said the Procureur would rip his head off if he told me anything. Sent me to ask you yourself."
"Oh my, the Procureur." Now Henri, honest to God, smiles slightly. "You didn't happen to meet him?"
"Well, I did." Somehow Joris feels a small sliver of pride that he both managed to sidetrack the Procureur's fury - and to break Henri's sudden bleakness.
"He's a good man," Henri insists despite he must know what kind of man he is. "He saved me. Someone not worthy to be saved at all."
"Henri," Joris admonishes him. "Don't start like this."
"It-- it is not easy for me, Joris."
"Didn't suppose that."
"And after all I put you through-- I'm not sure it's good for you to know these things."
Joris stares at him. "What? Why?" Isn't telling him the least Henri owes him?
"I'm not a good person, Joris."
"Yeah, you said so. Twice tonight, in fact. I don't believe you--" He drinks some of his already almost stale beer. It's not the beer you come here for. "No, I know you're not right. And I happen to want to know why you think so."
"I assaulted you, if I may remind you."
"I remember. And still I returned. Henri, you can't honestly think I would leave you be like that. I thought we were-- I don't know, friends by now?" Joris is exasperated, he doesn't know why he's invested into this like he is. But the thought of not seeing Henri anymore, it was more than he thought he could handle.
Henri's smile is tinted with genuine regret. "I thought so as well. That's why I can't trust myself around you anymore. I can't promise you it won't happen again," he says, his hand crawls up the other arm and settles over the bracelets beneath the cloths.
"Then don't," Joris hears himself say.
"What?" Henri murmurs irritated.
"I said, then don't promise." He swallows. "You-- you didn't do me any harm, Henri. Would never do so. I know it."
Henri's dark green eyes are upon him; there is some battle going on behind them. "No, I wouldn't. But-- the thing-- I don't think he would refrain himself. I-- I don't remember much from that night, but-- I recall a certain urgency still simmering in my flesh when I woke up the other day." He takes a deep breath. "And then you didn't return for the rest of the week. I understand that, God I do."
"Who is he?" Joris dares to ask.
"Am I safe right now? Are we safe?"
Henri's expression is unreadable. "I guess so." He folds back the right sleeve with the bracelets beneath, shoves it so far back that Joris can see there are three now.
"Is this a question and answer game or are you going to tell me your story?" Joris asks. "You know, I can do both. I'm versatile like that."
"I-- I could talk and then, if you want, you can ask questions. If there are any left; maybe I won't be able to answer them. But--" Here he looks down at his adorned arm. "But if you really insist I'll try. I owe you this."
"I'd appreciate that. I really do, Henri." He leans back, downs the rest of his dismal drink and waves the waiter for another round. "So?"
"Catherine," Henri starts, then has to clear his throat. "My sister, you remember? We both owned the shop; she was-- We were all that was left. Our parents had both died early, we had no other family, but we could always count on each other. Or at least I thought so. Our education was being taken care of by our parents, financially; we were both rather good students. But after school-- well, there was no money left for both of us to study. Madame Niguet had taken pity of us, she was the one responsible of clothing the students of our school. Her husband had fallen prey to a terminal sickness and couldn't continue his shop; they have looked around for someone to take care of the business and the wife. So, I decided to help them out. I could earn some money, and then, Catherine first and I later, would be able to visit University's lectures. Or so we planned. It was a good plan, wasn't it?" He looks at Joris, a sliver of hope welling up in his voice.
But by the way he holds himself tells Joris that those plans must have taken an ill course. "Sounds good," Joris acknowledges eventually, not sure whether he's supposed to say more. Hell, Henri has never talked so much, let alone about himself.
"But clothing wasn't my expertise, really. Madame Niguet thought so as well, and both her and my interests were actually more botanical." A tentative smile crawls along his features, quickly gone again. "It was the first time I was apart from my sister. I trusted her, and yet she-- she met people who weren't good for her. In the beginning it was her curriculum, but then she also spent her free time with others than me. She-- she gradually slipped away. At first I thought, well, this is how it's supposed to be. Brother and sister, even if they're twins, they don't have to be this close. You start making your own friends, friends you don't want to share with the other." Henri makes a fist at this and pushes it twice, thrice against his temple.
Joris receives the next round of drinks, nods the waiter off. Twins. Well, shit, that must be hard.
Henri stares at the quickly dissolving foam on top of his beverage. "She has befriended a group of mesmerists; has told me about them at first, but after I dismissed their interests as phony and ridiculous she stopped telling me about them. She also stopped telling me she still went with them."
Joris clears his throat. "I know those guys, you're right. They should return to showing their tricks on fairs, and at least get some loose nickel for it." But these private, stiff-collared meetings at wealthy and bored citizens' houses were just somewhat lame.
"She then found another group." Henri's voice falters slightly. "I-- I wasn't aware she was maybe looking for-- something. Anything. I don't know what for." He rolls back the sleeve over his arm, refastens the cuff. "This new group, they were occultists. Rather secluded, but they would take their pick from the aspirants who were queuing in front of the doors of their very private salon. You needed friends who told their friends that there was someone interesting yearning to meet those masters."
Joris had heard about those groups as well, of course. Even knows about those other occultists: performing humbug masses and chanting nonsense syllables; bowing in front of gilded thrones, masks supposed to veil their identities. Their hierarchic structures aren't for everybody. He remembers some of his gambling friends who briefly made acquaintances with some of the middlemen. They always opted out in time; but he has also heard of young girls, drugged to the gills with-- substances. Never recovering from what they have witnessed or endured. He nods, "Do you mean the philosophical circles or-- the other ones?"
Henri tilts his head, looks at Joris like he recognizes him for the first time since quite some time. "The other ones." His voice is small and hoarse.
"Oh," slips from Joris' mouth. "Shit."
Henri weaves his fingers together and puts them in front of him. "I think I need another cigarette, Joris." The remnants of his old one is long stubbed out in the tray.
Joris waves for the waiter and asks him for more cigarettes; since he's something not unlike a regular here, they even have his favourite brand. "Also, some rum, will you?"
Henri just watches the exchange grimly, like he knows this will only work with stronger alcohol. "Catherine was-- beautiful," he says when the waiter has left again after dropping their ordered items. He takes a cigarette himself and lights it; offers Joris fire for his own. "It wasn't hard for her to get an invitation."
Joris feels a sickness crawling up his belly. Being Henri's twin sister, he can only guess how attractive she must have been. His finely cut features, the fair skin complementing his dark hair and, damn, those eyes.
Henri downs his glass of booze and closes his eyes. "I really shouldn't indulge so much in drinking. I'm afraid it lessens my abilities to control myself."
"I don't mind," Joris quickly declares. "But maybe we should take a walk." Getting some fresh air definitely wouldn't hurt.
"I cannot guarantee for nothing," Henri simply says, smoke curling out of his mouth.
Joris nods and stands, finishes his own drink. "Come on then," he says and pats Henri's shoulder as he passes him on his way to the bar. There he leans over the counter, retrieves a half-empty bottle of rum, leaves enough coins on the table, and mocks a salute towards the waiter.
Outside he waits for Henri, who staggers next to him. Joris' clean coat is tucked under his arm, as he leans against the wall of the bistro.
"Take a breath." Joris watches him carefully, and then joins him at the wall. His left knee is bent, and he places the bottle on top of it.
Henri just nods and follows his advice, his eyes are half-closed. He looks slightly out of place with his impeccable three-piece suit, but a few skeins of hair are in disarray, and the buttons of his waistcoat are undone.
Together they stare at the people floating by, most of them are loud and in worn down clothes. Some of the brisker girls are looking at them with clear intentions, but Joris waves them away politely. He takes a swig from the bottle, rolls the liquor against his palate, then offers the rum to Henri.
"After they impregnated her," Henri continues out of nothing, "I followed her of course."
Joris almost spits out the booze, coughing up the liquid that has found its way into his windpipe.
"She began behaving rather strangely, but eventually her condition was clear." Henri downs a healthy part of the bottle. "She was even proud of it," he whispers. "Can you imagine that?" He wrings the neck of the bottle.
"No," Joris murmurs disturbed.
"She said things-- about now that the seed has been put into her, they would have to seal it. I begged her to not go." Henri's nails pick at the paper around the glass. "I locked her inside her room. But I couldn't hold her back." He takes another sip, then returns the bottle to Joris. "One night she slipped outside and there waited a cab for her, taking her through the streets." Now he directly looks at Joris. "I followed them, ran behind them, lost them somewhere around the station. But I knew where they were headed. Knew about their lodgings."
Joris hooks an arm under Henri's and starts to lead them onwards. His friend was talking himself into a state of despair, and Joris doesn't want him to break down in the middle of Brussels's seedier nightlife.
Henri lets himself be led down the street, stumbling through his story. "I-- crawled into that darkness. The doors were poorly secured. First I went down into the cellars, afraid my galloping heart would give me away. But they weren't there, the vaults were empty. Only then I started to hear them over my pulse; it started with a very low buzzing drone, as if your head was full of flies. I climbed the menials' secret stairs, heading towards the attic, the diffuse sounds becoming both more vivid and distorted. Sounds of huge cymbals, clashed together rapidly-- like in Chinese operas. Have you ever heard them?"
Joris shakes his head, "I don't think so."
Henri grabs Joris arm tighter. "It makes your blood curdle."
Joris swallows, feels goosebumps marching up and down his spine. Has he ever told this anyone before?
"Men were bellowing chants, in between high-pitched voices like banshees. But no sound of Catherine," Henri gasps, obviously reliving agony. "I spotted them finally. I-- can't find words to tell you what I witnessed, flattened behind the crimson velvet curtains. But I-- then I saw her. Strapped to some kind of altar in the middle. Naked. The air was heavy with smoke and herbs, incense and ash. Symbols were-- painted onto her skin. She was surrounded by hooded figures with animal masks. They moved around her in circles, wielding blades. Splashing her with-- all kinds of liquids."
Joris' eyes begin to hurt, he can't bring himself to blink lest Henri's descriptions become reality behind his eyelids. "Henri," he begins, unable to say more. The night air isn't helping much. He takes another sip of the rum.
Henri stops and stares at his hands, the bracelets jingle as he lifts them to inspect his fingers. He's starting to breathe faster. "They conjured something, Joris. They wanted to seal it inside Catherine's womb, but I-- I wouldn't let them." His gaze fixes Joris on the spot, the colour of his eyes is slowly shifting towards a bright yellow.
"What happened?" Joris hears himself whisper.
"They didn't succeed, because I invaded the ceremony. But my timing was unfortunate, for the demon was already summoned and looking for an unprotected vessel. I was thrown across Catherine, the masks around us screeching and laughing. Things quickly went out of control, then." And all of a sudden, Henri's face falls apart: A gutting sob wrecks his frame, his hands can't stem his features, can't hold back the torrents of anguish torn from his insides. He sinks to his knees, his breathing quickens.
Joris sinks down with him, puts the bottle somewhere close, and without thinking grabs Henri's head and puts it somewhere between his neck and shoulder. His friend claws the back of his waistcoat, and then Henri is just screaming into Joris. It's muffled, but Joris has to close his eyes; otherwise they would just bleed out of their sockets.
He rocks Henri slowly, tears, spit and sweat beginning to soak his collar. Then Henri starts hiccuping, and Joris wants to give him some space, but as soon as he draws back Henri's body follows him, hands hold him tighter. The bracelets jingle.
"Sshhh," Joris murmurs. "It's okay." The first strokes over Henri's back are short and clumsy, but Henri's despaired wails become longer and the breaths in between deeper.
"I failed her, Joris," Henri then rasps against his neck. "And now she's dead."
Something inside Joris cringes; his hands crawl to Henri's shoulders, further to his head. He grabs it and softly puts his temple against Henri. "Come on," he says with a small voice. "Let's not stay here." The streets are empty, but that's not always a good sign. "I live down the street." He pats Henri's shoulders and rises on wobbly legs. He's definitely not sober anymore, yet has managed to return home in far worse conditions.
Henri also manages to rise, but not to spare his own shirt as he becomes sick in front of Joris.
"Oh my," Henri mumbles, and Joris helps him with his handkerchief. "I'm sorry, Joris." He stares numbly upwards at the street lamp currently keeping him straight.
"It's okay," Joris says. "Let's get you home. I'm ready when you are ready." And he entwines his arm with Henri's and steers them down the lane.
You know, sometimes writing is like giving birth to bricks. This part was maybe something like a breech delivery? Hopefully the rest comes more quickly. Thanks for staying onboard, guys! Without you this story wouldn't exist.