“Hear my prayer
Answer my call
Breathe life into my soul
I am waiting for you to show
Come and hold me so.”
–“Summer Rain,” Jeffrey B. Franzel
Anne watched as the curtain of rain grew thicker, deepening the wells of water in the gaps between cobblestones of the inn yard. She’d heard the Englishman calling in his bad French for another bottle of table wine, but she was in no hurry to serve him. He had ready money, it was true, but the feelings of brotherly love for foreigners, even in Rouen, were not particularly fine-tuned. Dashing to fulfil the needs of a London gentleman—no doubt stopping at Rouen on his way to Paris—were not at the top of her list, especially when the Englishman in question had failed to make proper obeisance. A lady was a lady, and as a respectable inn-keeper, she felt slighted by his form of address.
“Je viens!” she shouted at last, turning from the rain at the window. On her way from the landing into the wine cellar, she noted in surprise that her stocks of table wine were lower than she had thought. As she came into the main room of the inn, wiping her hands perfunctorily on her apron, she realized why. Maxim had taken up station opposite the Englishman and was pouring them both a glass of wine. Anne tsked. No one but Maxim would dare!
“I approve very much of the dinner,” the Englishman was saying, in broken French, as Anne swept up to the table. Maxim winked at her as he finished divesting the wine bottle of its last drop, though his face grew serious as he strained to understand the foreigner. The Englishman was well-dressed in tight, colourful waistcoat and matching trousers, though Anne could tell at a glance his riding boots were much inferior to those you could find on sale in Paris. Besides, anyone would look dull beside Maxim, even though Maxim was not formally dressed, his shirt a day old—as were the whiskers on his face—and billowing, untucked, from his trousers; his waistcoat was snug on his thin form but stained.
“Have you heard this, Anne?” Maxim said with a deliberate slowness the inn-keeper suspected as meant to appeal to the Englishman. “Monsieur Oates is very complimentary upon your dinner. He says he has dined far better at your inn than anywhere in Paris.”
“I see,” said Anne gravely, searching Maxim’s eyes for the punchline of the joke; it was unlike him to be mischievous and merry for no reason. She curtseyed slightly to the smiling Monsieur Oates, though she did not meet his eyes. “I am surprised, Monsieur,” she returned to the foreigner, as she swiftly cleared the table of everything but the two wine glasses, “as I understood that you were Paris-bound.”
“I am on my way home, alas,” said Oates, with a wan smile, swivelling from Maxim to Anne.
“And you have enjoyed your visit to France?” Maxim questioned, sipping deeply from his wine. “You will encourage others to visit, or no?”
“Traveling has sometimes been uncomfortable,” Oates averred, “but I would come back to do it all again, by God I would.”
“Excuse me,” said Anne, looking fully at Maxim rather than Oates. “But I haven’t time to be idle—”
Before she could disappear, Maxim grabbed her elbow and pulled her into the seat next to his, opposite Oates. “Come along, Anne, we’re the only two staying at the inn today.”
Anne pushed out her lower lip in petulance she did not normally give indulgence to. “Once the rain clears, more travellers will stop here. It’s always so on a Monday.”
“Tell us about Paris,” Maxim interrupted, nudging Anne in the ribs as he produced another of Anne's bottles of table wine and poured its contents into his glass and Oates’. “I have frequently felt its pull, having once been in the theatrical profession. The good inn-keeper, however—”
“Is very happy to have been born and raised in Rouen,” Anne snapped, keeping one eye on the bay windows that looked out onto the courtyard. “The Parisians give themselves airs and graces.”
“Perhaps,” Oates conceded, drinking another gulp of the wine Maxim had offered. “But there are many impressive sights to see in Paris, Madame.” Maxim winked again, covertly at Anne, and she grudgingly smiled back: at least Maxim had taught this foreigner some manners. “The fountain of St Martin in front of the Ambigu-Comique is an object of exquisite beauty, especially in the moonlight.” Oates produced a handkerchief and wiped his lips, then fanned himself with it.
“What brought you to be taking a midnight stroll in a foreign city?” Anne questioned. Resigned to rising at five in the summer and retiring as soon as her duties were dispatched, Anne had little patience for moonlight flitters. She shivered in contemplation of moonlight on Maxim’s spine on the occasional nights when he would come to her chamber in darkness and leave with the light.
“It’s what all the guidebooks say to do,” replied Oates, a little hurt.
“I’ll never have the luxury of visiting Paris, at moonlight, daylight, or anything,” Anne replied. “I’m pleased that you have enjoyed your journey, Monsieur Oates, and I wish you well.” She nodded at him, got to her feet, and swept through into the kitchen.
In the kitchen, Anne scolded the maid, Marie, for being slovenly and for taking too long to clean the rooms. She unsettled the kitchen boys for not having caught the rats whose holes she had sealed with traps. She was rude to the laundry woman to whom she sent out the bed linen washing every week. In short, she was in a foul mood even as Oates went up to his room at sunset and Maxim joined her in her loge to do the accounts.
“I have ever only seen you as the essence of sweetness and light, though your life is not an easy one,” said Maxim. Anne could not reply until she had finished adding a column of numbers and turned coolly to Maxim as she placed the pen back into its holder in the inkwell. By that time, Maxim had gone on to say, “I did not count you among those xenophobic bigots who enjoy the exploits of Nicholas Chauvin.”
Anne shook her head sharply and reached out helplessly, almost involuntarily, for the lapels of Maxim’s waistcoat. She seemed to want to curl up in his arms but thought the better of it at the last moment, instead holding him at arms’ length with her fingers hooked through the shoulders of his waistcoat. “How could you think such a thing?” she whispered. “I have done my best to forgive. My father was killed at Waterloo.”
Maxim nodded sagely. “I did not know.” He allowed Anne to pull him closer and brush her lips almost chastely against his forehead. “I allow that sometimes my mouth runs away with me.”
“And me,” Anne said softly into his ear. “Imagine me getting distressed about a paying customer.” She looked deeply into his eyes, drinking him in, before tearing a kiss from his mouth. She did not usually deal in stolen goods; she plied kisses from him as if she knew she didn’t deserve them, as if she knew they were bestowed absently. This time she made her lips into a gash that bled onto Maxim’s, who were coloured plum from all the wine he’d plied Oates with.
“We spoke of the theatre in London,” Maxim muttered after calmly but primly returning Anne’s kiss.
“Rouen is too dull for you now,” Anne replied, going back to her accounts with ink-stained fingers, as if ashamed of her outburst. Her lips still tingled with the force of taking his tongue between them.
“It’s never too dull when I have you, Anne,” Maxim replied. Anne looked at him and understood his sincerity in a remark that could easily have sounded false from anyone else. “I want you to know that—”
“There’s something ringing the bell downstairs,” Anne cut in. “I told you, when the rain stops, there are always customers at the inn.”