Monsieur Jacques sat in front of me on a little children’s stool that contributed some cosiness to my otherwise plain room. I sat opposite him on my low bed, knees pressed together so tightly that the sides of my legs had begun to go numb.
Monsieur hadn’t hit me, or even scolded. It was as if the conversation at the dinner table the night before had completed missed his ears, or had never happened. Instead, he had sat me down for a talk. Despite these ominous words, Monsieur’s face wore a kind, peaceful expression. There was not a tinge of anger or hate in his dark eyes – if there was anything present in those hazy eyes it was grief and the longing to see his child again. I understood perfectly.
“Boy,” Monsieur Jacques spoke slowly, as if he was considering every one of his words with great care. “Boy, I wanted to welcome you into the house almost as my own.” Monsieur glanced around the almost bare room we were in and cast his heavy eyes to the floor. “But I fear I have not treated you as well as I should have.”
I wanted to interrupt, needing to praise Monsieur for the way he had always treated me – with kindness and respect – but I didn’t dare. I couldn’t interrupt my master, so he continued.
“It is true that I took you on as a sort of helper, a playmate for my children, but I always wanted so much more for you. The way our world works – it is not right. But I fear one man is not enough to change the system that, for centuries, has been pushing forth, unstoppable, with its rough ways. But even if I can’t change it all, I always knew I could make a small contribution. I wanted to give you a better life, an education, a view, more than anything, onto what life can be like.”
I listened intently as Monsieur went on, my knees beginning to relax and my eyes to widen as I began to understand Monsieur’s true intentions. “I always wanted to treat you as an equal, but it is difficult in an environment so wrought with social regulations. How could I ever treat a black servant as an equal? But I want to, and I will.” Monsieur paused for a moment as he considered his next words. Clearing his throat, he spoke. “Antonia’s death brought me to my senses. It may not seem like I am…in my right mind. To others, perhaps, I’m not. But in myself, I know I am. I want to take up your tuition, Ida,” he said softly, his eyes finally lifting to mine.
I watched as a tear rolled down the side of his face at the mention of his daughter’s name. I felt a jolt of surprise and gratefulness within myself as I heard my own name mentioned probably for the first time since my master introduced me to the household. No one had called me Ida here but Toni – perhaps no one but Toni and Monsieur Jacques had known my name. The twins and guests had resorted to called me black boy, and I hadn’t minded. But Ida felt like something else entirely. It felt like freedom. Like the freedom I wouldn’t have found if I had run away. Like the freedom I could now look forward to based on my master’s words. The freedom I had always longed for and never knew I could get. It all seemed possible now.
“Ida,” after a short pause, Monsieur Jacques resumed, his voice reverberating deeply around the small room and settling around us comfortably, “I loved my daughter so much, Ida. She reminded me so much of her mother, but it wasn’t just that. She was her own person – a beautiful, smart, graceful young lady. She would have grown up to achieve many a thing – perhaps even those things which I had never dared to attempt.” He sighed and rubbed his eyes, already red from the tears that threatened to rush down his face in a torrent of painful memories.
“What is it, Master Jacques?” I prompted him, my whole body going out to this poor man, so consumed by grief and yet able to so clearly and fully think of others.
“A life with love is like a year of four seasons but with one of them missing. You may have loyalty, respect and kindness, but without love one’s life lacks that one component to make a person’s existence the joy that it ought to be. It is like a year without summer, or autumn, or spring, or even winter. You cannot go without one of the four seasons; the year feels incomplete. Well so does life without love.” Monsieur’s words hung between us in the crispy air of the room, a bond forming between us as we savoured this understanding. “I will always love Antonia, but she is gone now. I must love what I do, but that is not enough.” Monsieur’s eyes cleared of their haziness for a moment and he stared at me intently . “Ida, I will dedicate the rest of my years to helping my sons, but also you, Ida, the boy from Africa who was torn away from his home and hopefully found one here, achieve dreams of fulfilling one’s life in terms of social standing, education and joy. I will not let that slip by you, Ida. I know you grieve, too. I may be inconsolable, but it has not evaded my eyes how you hurt because of Toni’s death.”
I shut my eyes momentarily to prevent a rush of tears escaping my eyes at that very moment, brought on by the sweet and wise, truthful and kind words of Monsieur Jacques.
“It is because of all this that I must give you what Toni gave me to present to you if ever she went away somewhere for a long time without being able to say a proper good-bye. She hated good-byes, she did. But she wanted to go to school elsewhere when she was older, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to say farewell without tears and feelings of regrets, so she passed the job on to me. Though she will never go to boarding school,” the redness had now covered Monsieur’s whole face as he concentrated on staying composed, “but I feel this is a time like no other to rightfully present you with this gift.”
Having said this, and breathing out long and slow, Monsieur Jacques pulled out of his cardigan pocket a hand-sized round object, like a flat ball, a circular shape which I had never seen before. It was twice the size of my hand, but just fit in Monsieur’s. The circular disc was rimmed with a bright orange, like the sunrises Toni and I had often watched from the windows of the house’s drawing room. One side of the disc, as Monsieur showed me, was split into four equal sections, and carefully painted over with Toni’s talented hand, to portray the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter, creating a complete circle of a year. Each section had the characteristic things that each season offered America: blooming flowers for spring, green meadows and blue lakes for summer, yellowing trees and harvests for autumn, and snow-covered hills and plains for winter.
In each of the sections, also, were two delicately painted figures: myself and Toni, always playing or looking out at the landscape. Together, Monsieur and I marvelled at the exquisite artwork Antonia had secretly completed, wanting to make something special for the black boy who had been brought to the States all the way from Africa, and had found a home amid the differences and fears that had turned to mutual love and loyalty.
The other side of the disc was plane silver and had a wobbly engraving that read “Antonia and Ida: no truer friends ever existed”. As my lips began to quiver, Monsieur placed a hand on my shoulder and sucked in a breath, preparing to speak. I lifted my tear-stained eyes to his, no longer able to contain myself at this revelation of true friendship, of true closeness that Toni had felt for me.
“This metallic disc is from a silver set we no longer use in this house, Ida,” Monsieur explained, his face soft as he looked from the round plate to me and back to the engraving, which he rubbed carefully with his fingers, as if to smooth out the slightly roughened edges where the engraving knife had been pressed into the silver. “This was Toni’s mother’s favourite set, but we stopped using it after her death. We couldn’t. The fact that Toni wanted me to give this to you, the fact that she could part with something so precious to her, means so much to me, Ida, and it meant so much to her.”
Monsieur smiled at me then, spreading his lips to reveal a red-lipped smile and a glint in his eye that I hadn’t seen in what seemed like years.
“So I will keep my promise. I will teach you the social rules of our society, I will tutor you in all the right subjects so that you can go on to receive a degree at a prestigious University. I will instruct you on how to go about living your life, Ida. And I will do this so that you can then go and break all those rules, and create a world that is fair and just, a world that my Toni would have liked to see and wanted to accomplish with you. I would have liked to see it happen with you at her side. But I believe that there is an independent strength that lies in you as well. That you are capable and intelligent. This disc,” Monsieur passed the silver plate to me, the engraving on top so that I could observe it in detail, “is indented with a true friendship that I haven’t seen in years. I am glad such friendships still exist.” Taking his hand off my shoulder, Monsieur Jacques stared intently into my eyes, his own flicking left to right to ascertain that I was in full attention of what he was saying.
“Honour me, Ida,” Monsieur Jacques spoke gently and with such firm honesty in his voice that could only speak of the true generosity of a man who was too good for this hard world. “Take up my promise and be the boy to change everything.”