For those of you thinking of reading Not Quite Home without having read Not Exactly Allies, this chapter is where Bertin Nason meets Marie-Bertrade, and it will give you a hint as to their characters. And now, the chapter:
29 – ENTER BERTI
There was a law to such things, Leandre Durand decided. When something massive happened to you, the mundane things crowded in and took over for a while. Now that he wished to attack any number of larger affairs in earnest, he found himself having one of those maddeningly prosaic days, where common duties demanded attention, and plans did not work out, and there were quite obviously going to be delays in longer-term matters. There was no good in fighting it. The universe would have its jokes. Durand's philosophy on such days was to treat them like little boys hoping to distress you by sticking a frog in your face. You looked the day in the face and said 'what a nice frog.' That was all.
Durand had never had anyone in the business over to his home for dinner except Richard and Emma Hugh. But, with Bertin Nason he thought he would make an exception. At least this once. Because it had been that sort of a day. And because the boy was clearly homesick and lonely, which meant that he was also, undoubtedly, having frogs put into his face.
"Hello, everyone. I want you to meet Bertin," Durand said.
His eldest son, Matthieu, went into hysterics. "Oh, no, not two of them," the boy gasped to his brothers. To emphasize his point, he pointed between Bertin and his sister. "Get it?" he asked. The brothers got it, and laughed.
"I do not seem to be in on this little joke," Durand said.
"Oh, Papa, they are just trying to annoy me," his daughter said. She turned to their guest. "My name is Marie-Bertrade, but nearly everyone but Papa calls me Berti. From time immemorial my little brothers have found ways to tease me whenever there is anyone around with a remotely similar name. When they were younger they had more sense and did it behind Papa's back. Ignore them. I know how to get even with them later."
"It would not be so bad if all she did was to get even with me. I can take as good as I can give. It's just that she always gives worse than she gets," Matthieu said.
"Says you," said Berti.
"Here, now, we will solve this, I think, by all of you calling our guest M. Nason," Durand said.
This provoked more giggles and whispers among the three sons.
"If you are coming up with nose jokes, you might as well tell me. I think I have heard them all, but you are welcome to try to be original. Just so you know, though, I know that my name originally meant small-nosed, that my nose is not actually very small, and, furthermore, to give you fair warning I should say that I also know how to give as good as I get," Bertin said. He smiled. It might have passed for friendly at a distance. Berti's brothers suddenly decided to remember their manners.
"Here, then, to finish the introductions properly," Durand said, "This is my wife Perrine, my eldest child Marie-Bertrade, then in descending order by age: Matthieu, Paul, and Regis."
"And just so you know, I am not always introduced last," Regis said, politely but with a defiant gleam in his eye.
Two cats, one part Siamese and lithe, the other the variety of general cat the British call a moggie, made their appearance. "And those are Bartholomew and Tolkien," Durand said. "Bartholomew is the Asian one, and Tolkien the European one. There is also a parrot, Hilaire, but he is locked up whenever company is coming, because his manners are atrocious. If cats bother you, we will put them in another room."
Without realizing it, Bertin glanced at Berti to see how she responded to the idea of excluding the cats. "I like cats, usually," he said to Durand. "Why don't we see how they behave themselves, and take it from there?"
"Fair enough," Durand said.
As they went to the table, Paul told Regis that he should be happy now, since he was not introduced last this time, the parrot having received that honor.
During dinner, Bertin proved that he could indeed give as good as he got, without losing his manners. Before the meal was half done, moreover, he was giving the boys as good as their sister got. Not that she needed his help, but she did appreciate it.
"Here, I have an idea," Berti said, suddenly enthusiastic.
Her parents tensed. It was anyone's guess what Marie-Bertrade could come up with that would make her feel suddenly enthusiastic, especially at this age, eighteen, and considering how she had been stealing glances at Bertin.
Berti caught their distress. "Oh, it is nothing to be afraid of, really," she said. "I was just wondering if anyone would like to go to the Louvre?"
"Now?" her brothers chimed in unison.
"But you would only get there perhaps a half hour before closing," Matthieu said.
"But that is what would make it so much fun," she said. "It would be an outrageous thing to do, but it wouldn't hurt anyone. What do you say, M. Nason? Shall we go just for the fun of watching the guards raise their eyebrows at us?"
"I would love to, but I am on call," he blurted. He blinked. He readjusted his posture, trying to recoup whatever dignity he had lost by blurting.
"Ooh, you are in trouble," Paul said. "Most of Berti's boyfriends are rich and have no jobs and can go when and where they please."
This did not help matters. Furthermore, it set off the other brothers, who pressed the case that a match between M. Nason and their sister was intrinsically impossible, for just multitudes of reasons.
"I could perhaps go tomorrow," Bertin said, cutting through the chatter.
This made the brothers hysterical.
"A fat lot of good that would do you on a Tuesday, since they are closed," Paul said. He jumped from his chair. "I know, I know, Papa, that is very rude and I have probably exceeded my allowance for rudeness for this week and must go to my room now. But it was worth it all the same," he said. He ran for his room, delighted to have contrived an excuse to grab the spotlight and do something dramatic while everyone – including a first time guest! – was watching.
Durand reached into his pocket, and fingered his rosary. Paul, at his present, disordered, stage of development, gave him much practice with his rosary.
"I forgot the day. Sorry," Bertin said to Berti. He turned to Durand. "You don't mind, do you? If I…? I mean, if we…? I mean, just to the Louvre? And maybe to get a bite to eat? You know that I wouldn't cross… I mean…"
"I will kill you if you mistreat my daughter. Otherwise I have no objections," Durand said, pleasantly.
"Papa!" Berti cried. She couldn't decide whether to faint or throw something. She settled for briefly hiding her face with her hand.
"Wednesday I am supposed to only work in the morning, barring a terrorist attack or other calamity. Shall I pick you up here? And when would you like to go? I liked the idea of going late just to be outrageous, but perhaps you would rather do that another time?"
"Especially since Wednesdays they are open late, and it would be a shame to have a hot date that started so late in the evening, eh?" said Matthieu. "Although it would likely save you money to not pick her up so early, no? Less time for her to think of ways to have you spend your money on her, you know."
"We do not need your help," Berti said. "And I would be perfectly happy to spend my own money. I am looking for an intelligent companion, not a bank account with legs."
By the time he made his goodbyes, Bertin had arranged to meet Marie-Bertrade in the near future. (The 'Berti' nickname did not suit her at all, in his opinion. He would not use it unless she insisted.)
After he got home, he realized that he'd forgotten to thank Perrine for a lovely dinner.
When he was changing clothes before going to bed, it occurred to him that he had no idea whether Marie-Bertrade intended for him to dress up for their date. Was it supposed to be an event or an expedition or what?
The next morning, as he was shaving, he looked long and hard in the mirror and asked the reflection what in the world it had been thinking, asking out a daughter of a man like Durand.
The next moment he had to stop shaving. It was too hard to shave while laughing. He couldn't erase Marie-Bertrade's face or her manner when she had proclaimed that she would be perfectly happy to spend her own money. And thank goodness she wasn't looking for a bank account with legs, as she put it. He wasn't poor, but he hadn't that much to spare. Tomorrow, if he had time, he would sit down and look at his finances and see if he could think of ways to save a little money, he decided. It would be fun to have a bit more set aside. Not for Marie-Bertrade, especially. Just as a good habit to acquire, now that he was past the first mad days of living independently.
He looked at himself long and hard in the mirror again. What in the world was he doing with his life, anyway? And what in the world had he been thinking, asking out the only daughter of Leandre Durand?