Very soon I will tell you more about Tristan, but for now, here is simply his beginning.
It was February and my hands were stiff and numb. I had been walking for hours along the narrow streets of Paris, oblivious to the exquisite architecture rising up around me. Earlier in the day, I had delivered the watches to the various dealers around the city and now there was nothing for me to do but lie down in my empty hotel room and wait for the dawn. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t stand another second of being locked up with the silence that squat fat and heavy like pile of rotting garbage in the corner. So I walked. From the Hôtel des Victoire down past the Musee du Louvre, barely sparing the looming palace a glance, to the Musee Delacroix and then up the Rue du Saint Germain. I walked with my head down and my collar turned up against the bitter winter wind that whipped through the slender passageways. The sound of my footsteps slammed against the flat fronts of the buildings, their windows black and drawn for the night.
Whether due to the cold or the lateness of the hour, I was alone on these streets, winding my way through the Seventh Arrodissment toward the northern half of the city. I walked without direction or purpose, trudging along as far as my legs were willing to carry me.
A thin wisp of fog threaded its way along the narrow, cobblestone streets ahead of me like a white silk scarf leading me through this maze, beckoning me down one nameless alley and then up a wide strip near Invalides.
I could feel Violetta’s small hand resting in the crook of my arm as she walked with me, her thin body pressed close as she fought to keep warm in the bitter night air. She whispered to me, pointing out the curious little shops. I promised to take her again in the morning so that she could pick up a new pair of gloves or a fashionable hat that would make her the envy of all the women back in Geneva.
At the base of a wide set of stairs, I paused, winded and my eyes tearing from the cold, to look around. Violetta was gone. Not just from Paris, but from my life. Two years she had been dead along with a daughter that had never been named. I walked these streets with her memory, teasing and taunting, calling me to her side.
I shuddered, my muscles trembling from something other than the cold. Shoving my hands into my pockets, I turned and started up the stairs that led to Sacre Coeur, its great white towers gleaming in the night sky. Violetta would have liked this hill in the day. She would have been able to look down to see all of Paris laid out before her like an intricate spider’s web. She would have liked the little cove of artists settled in nearby Montmartre.
I had climbed only a few stairs when I looked up to find a woman standing on the stairs above watching me. She was an older woman, appearing to be in her late 40s to early 50s, with her dark, black hair pulled up and away from her delicate face. A woolen white shawl was wrapped around her thin shoulders and over her long, navy blue dress. I stood transfixed as she slowly descended the stairs toward me. Her skin was luminescent in the faint lamplight, as pale as the moon and as flawless as the feathers of a dove.
She stopped just a couple of stairs above where I stood, her thin, leather-gloved hand resting lightly on the railing. “Pardonnez-moi, mais… Quelle heure avez-vous?” Her voice was softer than Violetta’s caress, and while her French was flawless, I could tell it was not her native tongue. It was something rarer and more exotic like a tropical bloom seen only in a conservatory behind a pain of glass.
Fumbling with my coat, I reached into my coat and pulled my gold pocket watch from my vest. My fingers were numb and clumsy from the cold and as I attempted to flip open the front, the watch slipped from my fingers. The cold, crisp silence was shattered as the watch clattered down two of the stone stairs before rolling to a stop. I lurched forward, frozen muscles crying out at the sudden movement, snatching up the errant timepiece that my father had made for me as a wedding gift. Opening the front, I discovered that the glass had cracked, with two long, jagged lines snaking across the front. The second hand had also stopped.
I looked up, lost and wordless. The woman extended her hand to me, and smiled.
It was two hours before sunrise.