She’d been through the flower beds with Armand and Reine-Marie many times, helping to bring order to the tangled mess. She thought she’d been clear about the difference between the flowers and the weeds.
Another lesson was in order.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Reine-Marie said, offering Myrna a morsel of smoked trout on rye.
Myrna smiled. City folk.
Armand strolled away from the Gilberts and was scanning the gathering to make sure everyone had what they needed. His eye fell on an unlikely grouping. Clara had joined Ruth and was now seated with her back to the party, as far from the house as possible.
She hadn’t said a word to him since she’d arrived.
That didn’t surprise him. What did was her decision to sit with Ruth and her duck, though it often struck Gamache as more accurate to describe the couple as Rosa and her human.
There could be only one reason Clara, or anyone, would seek out Ruth. A profound and morbid desire to be left alone. Ruth was a social stink bomb.
But they weren’t completely on their own. Henri had joined them and was staring at the duck.
It was puppy love, in the extreme. A love not shared by Rosa. Gamache heard a growl. From Rosa. Henri quacked.
Gamache took a step back.
That noise, from Henri, was never a good sign.
Clara stood up, to get away. She moved toward Gamache before changing direction.
Ruth wrinkled her nose as rotten egg settled around them. Henri was looking innocently around as though trying to find the source of the foul odor.
Ruth and Rosa were now looking at the shepherd with something close to awe. The old poet took a deep breath, then exhaled, turning the toxic gas into poetry.
“You forced me to give you poisonous gifts,” she quoted from her famous work.
I can put this no other way.
Everything I gave was to get rid of you
As one gives to a beggar: There. Go away.
But Henri, the brave and gaseous shepherd, did not go away. Ruth looked at him in disgust, but offered one withered hand to Henri, to lick.
And he did.
Then Armand Gamache went in search of Clara. She’d wandered over to the two Adirondack chairs, side by side on the lawn. Their wide wooden arms were stained with rings from years, decades, of drinks taken in the quiet garden. Emilie’s rings had been added to, and overlaid, by the Gamaches’ morning mugs and afternoon apéritifs. Peaceful lives intertwined.
There were two almost identical chairs in Clara’s garden. Turned slightly toward each other, looking over the perennial borders, the river, and into the woods beyond. With rings on the wooden arms.
He watched as Clara grasped the back of a chair and leaned into it, pressing against the wooden slats.
He was close enough to see her shoulders rise and her knuckles whiten.
“Clara?” he asked.
But she wasn’t. He knew it. And she knew it. She’d thought, hoped, that in finally talking to Armand that morning, the worry would go away. A problem shared …
But the problem, while shared, hadn’t been halved. It’d doubled. Then doubled again as the day dragged on. In talking about it, Clara had made it real. She’d given form to her fear. And now it was out. And growing.
Everything fed it. The aromas of the barbeque, the blowsy flowers, the chipped and stained old chairs. The rings, the damned rings. Like at home.
All that had been trivial, that had been comforting and familiar and safe, now seemed to be strapped with explosives.
“Dinner’s ready, Clara.” He spoke the words in his quiet, deep voice. Then she heard his step on the grass moving away from her, and she was alone.
All her friends had gathered on the deck, helping themselves to food. She stood apart, her back to them, looking into the darkening woods.
Then she felt a presence beside her. Gamache handed her a plate.
“Shall we sit?” He motioned to the chairs.
And Clara did. They ate in silence. All that needed to be said had been said.
* * *
The other guests helped themselves to steak and chutney laid out on the table. Myrna smiled at the weed centerpiece, still amused. And then she stopped smiling and noticed something. It really was beautiful.
Bowls of salad were passed around and Sarah gave Monsieur Béliveau the largest of the dinner rolls she’d made that afternoon, while he gave her the tenderest piece of steak. They leaned toward each other, not quite touching.
Olivier had left one of the waiters in charge of the bistro and had joined them. The conversation meandered and flowed. The sun set and sweaters and light summer jackets were put on. Tea lights were lit and placed on the table and around the garden, so that it looked like large fireflies had settled in for the evening.