Before you begin to read this, I would first like to preface this with some background information that might make this a little easier to understand. The story is set in Paris in the wake of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when a group of French Calvinist Protestants – known as Huguenots – were massacred by violent Catholic mobs in a wave of religious persecution during what were later known as the French Wars of Religion.
PROMPT: What do these texts suggest about the interplay between fear and foresight when individuals make life-altering choices? (January 2008)
Text: an excerpt from The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy
from THE TIN FLUTE
God, how tired she was of this job! Waiting on rough men who made insulting advances, or else others, like Jean Lévesque, who made sport of her. Waiting on people, always waiting on people! And forever smiling, when her feet felt as if she were walking on a bed of hot coals! Smiling when her aching legs were about to give way with exhaustion! Smiling no matter how enraged and miserable she might be!
In repose her face took on a look of stupefaction. For the moment, despite her heavy make-up, the image of the old woman she would become was superimposed on her childish features. By the set of her lips one could foresee the wrinkles into which the fine modeling of her cheeks would dissolve. All youth, confidence, vivacity seemed to have fled from her listless, shrunken eyes, leaving a vacuum. But it was not only the mature woman that appeared portentously in Florentine’s face; even more shocking were the marks of inherited debility and deep poverty that she bore. These seemed to rise from the depths of her somber pupils and spread like a veil over the naked, unmasked face.
All this passed in less than a minute. Abruptly Florentine straightened up, and the smile returned of itself to her rouged lips, as if it responded not to her will, but to some powerful reflex, the natural ally of her challenge to life. Of all the confused thoughts that had run through her mind, she retained only one, a conviction as clear and sharp as her congealed smile, that she must immediately stake everything she still had to offer, all her physical charm, on one wild chance of happiness. As she leaned over the counter to pick up some dirty dishes, she caught a glimpse of Jean Lévesque’s profile, and it came to her with the force of a staggering blow, that whether she wished it or not, she could no longer be indifferent to him. . . .
She glanced down the length of the counter. Out of the corner of her eye she could see a row of faces bent over plates, mouths open, jaws chewing, greasy lips–a sight that usually infuriated her–and then, at the end of the table, the square shoulders of her young man in his well-cut brown suit. One of his hands cupped his face; his brown skin was drawn tight over his cheeks; his teeth were clenched. Fine lines spread fanwise from his chin to his temples. Young as he appeared, light furrows were already drawn on his stubborn brow. And his eyes, whether skimming over nearby objects or studying his book, were hard and brilliant.
Florentine stole up on him and observed him minutely through half-closed lids. His suit was made of English cloth, unlike the stuff to be found in the neighborhood stores. It seemed to her that his clothing indicated a special character, an almost privileged kind of existence. Not that the youth dressed with studied elegance; on the contrary, he affected a certain carelessness. His tie was knotted loosely, his hands still bore slight traces of grease, he wore no hat in any weather, and his hair was thick and unmanageable from exposure to sun, and the rain and heavy frost. But it was just this negligence in small details that lent importance to the expensive things he wore: the wrist watch whose dial flashed with every gesture, the heavy silk scarf draped about his neck, the fine leather gloves sticking out of his pocket. . . . He might be nothing but a machinist at this moment, but she was confident that he would be prosperous in the future, a future with which a strong instinct urged her to ally herself.
She came to, from far away, and asked him in the tough accent she assumed for the customers:
“Well, do you want dessert?”
Jean raised his head, squared his broad shoulders and gave her a glance of mingled impatience and mischief.
“No. But you . . . you haven’t told me yet if I’m to be the lucky guy tonight. You’ve had ten minutes to think it over; what have you decided? Are you coming to the movies with me, yes or no?”
He saw Florentine’s green pupils light up with impotent rage, but quickly she lowered her eyes. When she replied, her voice was both angry and mournful, yet with a conciliatory undertone.
“Why should I go to the movies with you? I don’t know you! How should I know who you are?”
He chuckled. It was obvious that she was fishing for information about him.
“Come now,” he said. “You’ll find that out gradually, if you’ve a mind to.”
Dismayed less by his evasion than by his detachment, Florentine thought to herself in some shame: He wants me to do all the talking. Maybe he only wants to make fun of me. And she herself broke into a forced laugh.
But his attention had turned from her. He seemed to be listening to sounds out in the street. A moment later Florentine heard the distant beating of drums. A crowd was gathering in front of the store windows. Salesgirls who were unoccupied hurried to the street side of their counters. Although Canada had declared war against Germany six months before, military parades were still a novelty in the Saint-Henri quarter.
A platoon filed past the five-and-ten. Florentine leaned forward to see with breathless, almost childish interest, as the soldiers swung by, lusty fellows, stalwart in their heavy khaki coats, their arms stiff under a light powdering of snow. She whirled around to look at Jean, as if to have him witness the girlish delight in her face, but his expression was so hostile, so scornful, that she shrugged her shoulders and left him, eager not to miss anything of the show going on in the street. The latest recruits were moving into her line of vision; they were in civilian clothes, some in light suits, others wearing shabby fall coats, torn and patched, pierced by the bitter wind. She knew by sight some of these young men marching behind the soldiers. Like her own brother, like her father, they had long been on relief. And suddenly, mingled with her consciousness of the exciting and inscrutable elements of the military pageant, she had a vague intuition that desperate poverty had found its final solution in war. . . .
“It’s crazy, don’t you think?”
Far from smiling at her sally, as she had hoped, he eyed her with such animosity that she felt a flicker of joy, almost of vengeance, as she thought: “Why he’s a crazy fool too!” And it gave her a spark of satisfaction to have judged him so severely in her mind.
He meanwhile was rubbing his hand over his face as if to wipe out unpleasant thoughts, or perhaps simply to hide a sardonic smile, and then, catching the girl’s eye, he pressed her once more:
“What’s your name? Tell me your name.”
Theme Statement: When faced with a choice to alter one’s life or choose to remain on their current course, an individual often chooses the option which they perceive will make them the most happy; however, the presence of fear often accompanies their ideas of the future, thereby causing them to sacrifice certain aspects of their current life in favour of the new path they choose to follow.
Looking at her makes me afraid. She wasn’t hideous to look at, no, but there was a certain thrill in looking at her that made me feel uneasy. She was beautiful, but I knew all too well about the power beauty has in corrupting even the souls of great men, causing the collapse of empires and the fall of kingdoms. I, of course, was neither the emperor of China nor the king of France, but desire doesn’t discriminate, and I couldn’t be too wary of the women I met. Especially if she was a Catholic.
I was raised to believe that it was my duty as an Huguenot and a true Christian to rid all of France, and then all of Europe, of Rome’s superstitious hogwash. I grew up with an intense disgust for many of my neighbours, most of whom I believed weren’t even worthy enough to be called French. O how I hated them! I felt it my duty to fight against this Romanist disease plaguing Europe’s streets. Pamphlet after pamphlet, I would distribute them to every person I encountered, praying desperately for the day when the Huguenots would finally rise up and vanquish every papist from the stretches of Portugal to the final frontiers of the Holy Roman Empire. You can imagine that my hatred for them was only strengthened when my beloved homeland began to reek of blood. Every day, we would hear of neighbours, friends, brothers, and fathers shedding blood, sweat, and tears – and sometimes, their very lives – for the good of the Huguenot cause.
We still live in fear, like this, every day. Every day, we can still feel the cold hand of death upon our shoulders, hanging there like a dreadful feeling you can’t shake off. Growing up in an environment like this, I was a child of this chaos. It was only recently when I realized she was, too. At least, this was until she came into my life.
God, how stupid I am! Thinking of her, always thinking of her! The very thought of her makes my blood boil; unfortunately for me, it boils out of longing, and not of hate. If it was hatred, I wouldn’t be feeling this way! I wouldn’t be feeling the racing of my heart when I’m around her, the tingling of my skin when she brushes a hand over my shoulder, or the dizziness my mind undergoes when she locks her eyes with mine. I really don’t think this is the way a boy – no, a man – of proud Huguenot stock should act. My grandfather must be turning in his grave! To have shed blood for the true faith, only to have his grandson destroy it all – that’s a disgrace I don’t think I have the courage to bear! Yet, how could I ignore her now? Whether I wish to or not, I can no longer be indifferent to her…
She was the one who changed it all. It’s strange to think about how much just one person can do to another to change the whole course of their lives. To change a whole worldview, even – humans are not gods, for sure, but in harbouring such a power, it sometimes seems they could very well be. It’s blasphemous, I know, but that’s how I felt the first time I laid eyes upon her. Her soft blue-green eyes, her golden curls, her rouge lips. The gentleness in her hands as she dabbed a white cloth on my bloodied head, the warmth in her voice when she asked me how I was.
“It’s crazy, don’t you think?” she asked me. Even in her eyes – the kind eyes of a nurse – I could see the look of longing emanating from the depths of her soul. The look of want, for peace, for security, for love. It was only then, that I realized I wanted those things, too.
Her voice when she asked me for my name.
To tell you the truth, at that moment, I forgot who I was. The world around me faded away. It was only me and her. Just us two. How could I foresee, then, the consequences of such infatuation? Of – and dare I say it – of such love? The thing is, I couldn’t.
Now that I stand on the precipice of something greater than myself, I come face to face with a choice. Of all the confused thoughts running through my mind, one thing stood out to me the most – it was a conviction, however dim, that was still sharper than the rest. Here I am, with the chance to stake everything I have on one wild chance of happiness. It might turn out to be nothing, but it is a potential future to which I choose to ally myself.
I can just about foresee how my life might look like, maybe ten years from now. It makes me shudder just to think of it. She by my side, our three, four, maybe five children running around us. She, happy and content; me, regretful and unsatisfied, shunned by my own family, the blood-curdling screams of my ancestors’ ghosts still echoing endlessly in my ears. This is what it might look like if I choose to turn my back on my family, and yet…would I really regret it?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – looking at her makes me afraid. I’m not afraid of who she is, no, nor of her faith, however different it might be from mine. I’m not afraid of the old woman she will one day become, the loss of the youth and beauty that perhaps entraps me now. I’m not afraid of her. However, I am afraid of love. I am afraid of the new life she reflects in her eyes, the bittersweet pain of turning my back on my Huguenot brothers for her sake. To turn my back on the God I grew up knowing and loving, which brings with it the fear of eternal damnation. As far as I’m aware, she could prove to be the ruin of my soul – but who’s to say she doesn’t know Him, too?
The choice is mine.