Birdsong

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks Read Free Book Online

Book: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks Read Free Book Online
Authors: Sebastian Faulks
unnoticed and unencouraged by their parents. They developed a shared selfishness that prevented them from venturing far from their own mutual reassurance.
    The eldest sister, Mathilde, was given to outbursts of temper and to sulks that could last for days. She had dark hair and a cold eye that sometimes made even her father think twice before crossing her. When she was eighteen she developed a passion for an architect who worked near the cathedral in Rouen. He was a small, shifty-looking man with a certain weasel quickness in his movements. He had been married for ten years and was himself the father of two girls. Rumours of a growing friendship between them reached the ears of Monsieur Fourmentier, and there was a noisy confrontation. From her attic bedroom the five-year-old Isabelle heard the first sound of adult passion as her father’s pleading turned to anger and her sister’s well-known temper became something more wailing and elemental. She felt the house tremble as Mathilde slammed the front door behind her.
    Isabelle was a child of exceptionally sweet nature. She did not question her parents’ indifference. The closest thing she had to a confidante was her sister Jeanne, who was two years older. Jeanne was the most resourceful of the girls. She had not had to make the first moves into the world, like Mathilde, nor was she included in Béatrice and Delphine’s alliance. When blood came one day toIsabelle, unexplained and unpredicted, it was Jeanne who explained what their mother, through idleness or prudishness, had failed to do. This blood, Jeanne said, was supposed to be shameful, but she had never thought of it that way. She valued it because it spoke of some greater rhythm of life that would lead them away from the narrow boredom of childhood. Isabelle, who was still shocked by what had happened, was suggestible enough to share Jeanne’s private pleasure, though not without a qualm. She could never quite reconcile herself to the fact that this secret thing that promised new life and liberation should manifest itself in the colour of pain.
    Isabelle’s father was a lawyer who had political ambitions but lacked the ability to realize them or the charm that might have made connections where talent had failed. He became bored by his houseful of women and spent mealtimes reading Parisian newspapers with their accounts of political intrigues. He was unaware of the complexity or passion of the lives led by his family. He would rebuke the girls for bad behaviour and occasionally punish them severely, but he had no other interest in their development. Madame Fourmentier was driven by his indifference into an excessive concern with fashion and appearance. She assumed her husband had a mistress in Rouen and that this was the reason he no longer showed any interest in her. To compensate for this presumed slight she devoted her time to making herself look attractive to men.
    A year after her failed affair with the married architect, Mathilde was married off to a local doctor, to the relief of her parents and the envy of her sisters. It was assumed that when the other girls had also left home Isabelle would stay and look after her parents.
    “Is that what I’m supposed to do, Jeanne?” she asked her sister. “Stay here forever while they grow old?”
    “I think they’d like it, but they have no right to expect it. You must find your own life. That’s what I’m going to do. If no one marries me I’m going to live in Paris and open a shop.”
    “I thought you were going to be a missionary in the jungle.”
    “That’s only if the shop fails and my lover rejects me.”
    Jeanne had a greater sense of humour and detachment than Isabelle’sother sisters, and their conversations together gave Isabelle the feeling that the things she had read about in books and newspapers were not just the ingredients of other people’s lives, as she had once believed, but were open to some extent to her too. She loved Jeanne as she

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