For three days she does not meet her great-uncle. Then, feeling her way to the toilet on the fourth morning after their arrival, she steps on something small and hard. She crouches and locates it with her fingers.
Whorled and smooth. A sculpture of vertical folds incised by a tapering spiral. The aperture broad and oval. She whispers, “A whelk.”
One stride in front of the first shell, she finds another. Then a third and a fourth. The trail of seashells arcs past the toilet and down a flight to the closed fifth-floor door she knows by now is his. Beyond which issues the concerted whispers of pianos playing. A voice says, “Come in.”
She expects fustiness, an elderly funk, but the room smells mildly of soap and books and dried seaweed. Not unlike Dr. Geffard’s laboratory.
“Marie-Laure.” His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers. She reaches into space, and a cool bird-boned hand takes hers. He is feeling better, he says. “I am sorry I have not been able to meet you sooner.”
The pianos plink along softly; it sounds as if a dozen are playing all at once, as if the sound comes from every point of the compass.
“How many radios do you have, Uncle?”
“Let me show you.” He brings her hands to a shelf. “This one is stereo. Heterodyne. I assembled it myself.” She imagines a diminutive pianist, dressed in a tuxedo, playing inside the machine. Next he places her hands on a big cabinet radio, then on a third no bigger than a toaster. Eleven sets in all, he says, boyish pride slipping into his voice. “I can hear ships at sea. Madrid. Brazil. London. I heard Pakistan once. Here at the edge of the city, so high in the house, we get superb reception.”
He lets her dig through a box of fuses, another of switches. He leads her to bookshelves next: the spines of hundreds of books; a birdcage; beetles in matchboxes; an electric mousetrap; a glass paperweight inside
which, he says, a scorpion has been entombed; jars of miscellaneous fuses; a hundred more things she cannot identify.
He has the entire fifth floor—one big room, except for the landing— to himself. Three windows open onto the rue Vauborel in the front, three more onto the alley in the back. There is a small and ancient bed, his coverlet smooth and tight. A tidy desk, a davenport.
“That’s the tour,” he says, almost whispering. Her great-uncle seems kind, curious, and entirely sane. Stillness: this is what he radiates more than anything else. The stillness of a tree. Of a mouse blinking in the dark.
Madame Manec brings sandwiches. Etienne doesn’t have any Jules Verne, but he does have Darwin, he says, and reads to her from The Voyage of the “Beagle,” translating English to French as he goes—the variety of species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite . . . Music spirals out of the radios, and it is splendid to drowse on the davenport, to be warm and fed, to feel the sentences hoist her up and carry her somewhere else.
Six blocks away at the telegraph office, Marie-Laure’s father presses his face to the window to watch two German motorcycles with sidecars roar through the Porte Saint-Vincent. The shutters of the town are drawn, but between slats, over sills, a thousand eyes peer out. Behind the motorcycles roll two trucks. In the rear glides a single black Mercedes. Sunlight flashes from the hood ornaments and chrome fittings as the little procession grinds to a stop on the ringed gravel drive in front of the soaring lichen-streaked walls of the Château de Saint-Malo. An elderly, preternaturally tanned man—the mayor, somebody explains—waits with a white handkerchief in his big sailor’s hands, a barely perceptible shake showing in his wrists.
The Germans climb out of their vehicles, more than a dozen of them. Their boots gleam and their uniforms are tidy. Two carry carnations; one urges along a beagle on a rope. Several gaze openmouthed up at the facade of the château.
A short man in a field captain’s uniform emerges from the backseat of the Mercedes and brushes something invisible from the sleeve of his coat. He exchanges a few words with a thin aide-de-camp, who translates to the mayor. The mayor nods. Then the short man disappears through
the huge doors. Minutes later, the aide-de-camp flings open the shutters of an upstairs window and gazes a moment across the rooftops before unfurling a crimson flag over the brick and securing its eyelets to the sill.