Villefranche-de-Rouergue, France, April 1816
Isn't it enough to bear the twin indignities of womanhood and old age without also having to fix the mistakes of men? Take, for instance, the mishandling of my late brother's name. How many different governments have we petitioned for permission to use it? Now the permission is finally granted, but the name is misspelled. My husband, our eldest son, Victor, and our youngest son, François, attended the tribunal at city hall where the name change was officially registered—and didn't even notice! Indeed, they returned in high spirits, my husband shouting to the household to come greet the "Messieurs Dalmas de Lapérouse!" I was the only one who heard—I'd banished the four visiting grandchildren to the garden—and after making my way to the library, I find the three of them practicing their new names on the expensive writing paper.
Pierre-Jean-Antoine Dalmas de Lapeyrouse
Pierre-Antoine-Victor Dalmas de Lapeyrouse
Philippe-François Dalmas de Lapeyrouse
"There's no y," I say.
"What do you mean, my dear?" my husband asks. He peers at me through a fringe of thick hair like a graying schoolboy.
"It should be an e with an accent." I draw the letter in the air before them.
Antoine and our sons look at each other, then Victor points to the paper before them. "Mother, this is the official spelling," he says. "The magistrate at the tribunal—he showed us."
I turn to my husband. "How could you fail to notice it was misspelled?"
" 'Lapérouse' with an e, 'Lapeyrouse' with a y—" Antoine says, "what difference does it make?"
"It makes a great deal of difference."
"One is correct, and the other is not."
He raises his hands in a familiar gesture of exasperation.
"And I thought we were dropping 'Dalmas,' " I add, knowing I'm going too far but unable to resist.
"Oh, now you're ashamed of my name?" Antoine says, then strides from the room. I watch him go, jealous of his still-youthful gait.
My sons look at me reproachfully. "Why do you do that, Mother?" François says. "We thought you would be pleased. Isn't this what you wanted, you and Aunt Victoire?"
I pick up the paper on which my husband has been practicing his new, misspelled name. "This is not how we wrote it," I say. The sheet flutters in my hand, evidence of an intermittent palsy that began a few years ago, after my seventieth birthday.
"Don't you mean this is not how you've been writing it?" Victor says.
"What are you talking about?"
He takes my hand and stills it, then extricates the sheet from between my fingers. His own hands are large and rough and unexpected: the hands not just of a grown man, but of a man no longer young. "Mother," he says, "we all know that whenever you're back in Albi with Aunt Victoire—or anywhere away from the rest of us, or with your fellow Pénitents Bleus—you call yourself 'Madame de Lapérouse.' "
"And why shouldn't I?"
Victor exchanges a glance with François, then looks pointedly back at me, as if he can think of any number of reasons why I shouldn't.
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