- Published: 3 October 2013
- ISBN: 9780718159641
- Imprint: Penguin eBooks
- Format: EBook
- Pages: 480
Isaac Bell #3
Dear Mr. Clunet,
I do not know what will happen at the end of this week. I have always been an optimistic woman, but time has left me bitter, alone, and sad.
If things turn out as I hope, you will never receive this letter. I’ll have been pardoned. After all, I spent my life cultivating in?uential friends. I will hold on to the letter so that, one day, my only daughter might read it to find out who her mother was.
But if I am wrong, I have little hope that these pages, which have consumed my last week of life on Earth, will be kept. I have always been a realistic woman and I know that, once a case is settled, a lawyer will move on to the next one without a backward glance.
I can imagine what will happen after. You will be a very busy man, having gained notoriety defending a war criminal. You will have many people knocking at your door, begging for your services, for, even defeated, you attracted huge publicity. You will meet journalists interested to hear your version of events, you will dine in the city’s most expensive restaurants, and you will be looked upon with respect and envy by your peers. You will know there was never any concrete evidence against me—only documents that had been tampered with—but you will never publicly admit that you allowed an innocent woman to die.
Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, not since I first set foot in this city I love so dearly. I thought I could manipulate those who wanted state secrets. I thought the Germans, French, English, Spanish would never be able to resist me—and yet, in the end, I was the one manipulated. The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men. I was convicted of espionage even though the only thing concrete I traded was the gossip from high- society salons.
Yes, I turned this gossip into “secrets,” because I wanted money and power. But all those who accuse me now know I never revealed anything new.
It’s a shame no one will know this. These envelopes will inevitably find their way to a dusty file cabinet, full of documents from other proceedings. Perhaps they will leave when your successor, or your successor’s successor, decides to make room and throw out old cases.
By that time, my name will have been long forgotten. But I am not writing to be remembered. I am attempting to understand things myself. Why? How is it that a woman who for so many years got everything she wanted can be condemned to death for so little?
At this moment, I look back at my life and realize that memory is a river, one that always runs backward.
Memories are full of caprice, where images of things we’ve experienced are still capable of suffocating us through one small detail or insignificant sound. The smell of baking bread wafts up to my cell and reminds me of the days I walked freely in the cafés. This tears me apart more than my fear of death or the solitude in which I now find myself.
Memories bring with them a devil called melancholy—oh, cruel demon that I cannot escape. Hearing a prisoner singing, receiving a small handful of letters from admirers who were never among those who brought me roses and jasmine ?owers, picturing a scene from some city I didn’t appreciate at the time. Now it’s all I have left of this or that country I visited.
The memories always win, and with them comes a demon that is even more terrifying than melancholy: remorse. It’s my only companion in this cell, except when the sisters decide to come and chat. They do not speak about God, or condemn me for what society calls my “sins of the ?esh.” Generally, they say one or two words, and the memories spout from my mouth, as if I wanted to go back in time, plunging into this river that runs backward.
One of them asked me:
“If God gave you a second chance, would you do anything differently?”
I said yes, but really, I do not know. All I know is that my current heart is a ghost town, one populated by passions, enthusiasm, loneliness, shame, pride, betrayal, and sadness. I cannot disentangle myself from any of it, even when I feel sorry for myself and weep in silence.
I am a woman who was born at the wrong time and nothing can be done to fix this. I don’t know if the future will remember me, but if it does, may it never see me as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.
On one of my trips to Vienna I met a gentleman who had become a roaring success in Austria among men and women alike. He was called Freud—I can’t remember his first name—and people adored him because he had restored the possibility that we are all innocent. Our faults were actually those of our parents.
I try to see now where mine went wrong, but I cannot blame my family. Adam and Antje Zelle gave me everything money could buy. They owned a hat shop and invested in oil before people knew of its importance, which allowed me to attend a private school, study dance, take riding lessons. When people started to accuse me of being a “woman of easy virtue,” my father wrote a book in my defense— something he should have never done. I was perfectly at ease with what I was doing, and his words only drew more attention to their accusations of prostitution and lying.
Yes, I was a prostitute— if by that you mean someone who receives favors and jewelry in exchange for affection and pleasure. Yes, I was a liar, one so compulsive and out of control that I often forgot what I’d said and had to expend great mental energy to cover my blunders.
I cannot blame my parents for anything, except perhaps for having given birth to me in the wrong town. Leeuwarden, a place most of my fellow Dutchmen will have never even heard of, is a town where absolutely nothing happens and every day is the same as the last. Early on, as a teenager, I learned that I was beautiful from the way my friends used to imitate me.
In 1889, my family’s fortune changed—Adam went bankrupt and Antje fell ill, dying two years later. They did not want me to have to go through what they went through, and sent me away to school in another city, Leiden, firm in their objective that I have the finest education. There I trained to become a kindergarten teacher while I awaited the arrival of a husband who would take charge of me. On the day of my departure, my mother called me over and gave me a packet of seeds:
“Take this with you, Margaretha.”
Margaretha—Margaretha Zelle—was my name, and I detested it. Countless girls had been given the name Margaretha because of a famous and well- respected actress.
I asked what the seeds were for.
“They’re tulip seeds, the symbol of our country. But, more than that, they represent a truth you must learn. These seeds will always be tulips, even if at the moment you cannot tell them apart from other ?owers. They will never turn into roses or sun?owers, no matter how much they might desire to. And if they try to deny their own existence, they will live life bitter and die.
“So you must learn to follow your destiny, whatever it may be, with joy. As ?owers grow, they show off their beauty and are appreciated by all; then, after they die, they leave their seeds so that others may continue God’s work.”
She placed the packet of seeds in a small bag that I had watched her stitch carefully for days despite her illness.
“Flowers teach us that nothing is permanent: not their beauty, not even the fact that they will inevitably wilt, because they will still give new seeds. Remember this when you feel joy, pain, or sadness. Everything passes, grows old, dies, and is reborn.”
How many storms must I weather before I understand this? At the time, her words sounded hollow; I was eager to leave that suffocating town, with its identical days and nights. And yet today, as I write this, I understand that my mother was also talking about herself.
“Even the tallest trees are able to grow from tiny seeds like these. Remember this, and try not to rush time.”
She gave me a kiss goodbye, and my father took me to the train station. We barely spoke on our way there.
Captain Omar Rahal tracked the small boat racing across the placid waters of the narrow strait.
Heat shimmered in waves across the Valley of the Kings as the merciless sun baked the desert sands into clay.
They gave him the gun in New York, he was pretty certain, and he thought some money too.
The steep acropolis of Sardis loomed against the night sky, while far below at the city’s edge, flames consumed the reed-thatched buildings.
Through his periscope, Kapitän Hans Schultz watched the chaos aboard the schooner Carroll A. Deering and smiled.
Wails of grief drifted over the city like a black aria. The mud brick dwellings burst with anguish, as the sorrow swirled into the night desert.
The winter moon lit the paving stones as Gelimer, King of the Vandals, and his brother, Tzazon, galloped their horses through the old triumphal arch, past the theater, past the forum, past the still-elegant sleeping town houses.