Guillaume Lerou had been told not to go into the Casbah because there was fever, which was often the case in Algiers when the wetter and colder weather came around. His comrades had warned him about the outbreak because of his frequent visits to the home, and the bed, of a pretty native girl named Émilie Hussain.
In December of 1917, Guillaume Lerou was twenty-eight and had just been made a sergeant in the Chasseurs d’Afrique. Guillaume had come to Algiers in 1912, when he was twenty-two. He was a tall young man with a loud, infectious laugh, who was well-liked by both his comrades and the young women of the Casbah. Émilie had been sixteen when they had met and it was said that the child who sometimes toddled by her side, clutching her skirt when she went into the marketplace, was his. Augustin, as the little boy was called, was now almost five.
The buildings of the Casbah seemed to be stacked one on top of each other like great white boxes, and the streets, which were terraced off like staircases, wound through it like a labyrinth and were more like hallways in a large house since the buildings were so close together. Among the courtyards, terraces, and twisted streets were all kinds of people, black, white and everything in between, from all parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Vendors sold their wares. Singers and musicians performed for coins, children played, and men lounged around smoking hookahs and gambling. All of the terraces on the flat-topped roofs seemed connected, and one could image jumping or climbing from one to another. All was close knit and mysterious; the Casbah seemed a world away from the more modern city of Algiers.
Guillaume came to a building accessed via a narrow, winding, alley. There was an entrance way with a horseshoe arch which lead into a small room with mosaic cover walls. A beautiful young woman appeared in the entranceway and smiled at him with a radiant, white smile. Her large, velvety, dark eyes shone with joy to see him. She was dressed in a white gown which clung to the soft curves of her body and a headscarf of a similar hue with pink roses in her dark hair.
“Guillaume,” she said, happiness evident in her voice, “I saw you coming from the roof.”
“I heard our boy was sick, Émilie,” he answered, “I’ve come to see how he is.”
“Come in and see for yourself.” She gave him a reassuring smile and gestured for him to come in, her jewelry jingling as she moved.
Up a steep flight of stairs was a good sized room with a large window which looked down the great fortress of the Casbah to the Bay of Algiers. The room was decorated with brightly colored tapestries and carpets and a makeshift bed was set up by the window, which was the coolest part of the room.
A woman with an older and slightly faded version of Émilie’s beauty approached them as they came into the room.
“He’s much better,” she said to them with a calm smile, “The doctor told us to make sure he stays cool and drink lots of water. He did not think he would make it, but he’s over the worst of it.”
“Margot, you old witch,” Guillaume answered, “ I knew you’d take good care of him.”
A small boy of about five was lounging among the cushions of the makeshift bed. He was a beautiful child with Émilie’s dark curls, thick but perfectly arched eyebrows, and feathery lashes, and Guillaume’s green eyes. His skin tone was somewhere between his mother’s cinnamon color and his father’s fairer shade. Margot knelt down by his side and held a glass of water to his lips.
“Drink this, my love,” she said.
The boy sat up and took a sip from the glass of water. Guillaume sat by his side and stroked the mop of curls away from his forward.
“There’s a good boy,” he said, “I have a present for you.”
“What is it?” the boy answered in a sleepy sounding voice.
Guillaume reached into his pocket and pulled out a small figurine of a lion carved from wood. The child’s eyes lit up when he saw the toy and he reached over to take it.
“What do you say, Augustin?” Margot said.
“Thank you,” Augustin responded.
“Now you be a good boy. Do everything your mother and grandmother tell you and get better.”
Émilie sat down in a carved wooden chair; she looked a bit faint and overheated.
Among the victims of the fever outbreak that December were Émilie Hussain and her mother Margot. Guillaume had been with his beloved Émilie when she died. In his grief, he asked to be transferred to a regiment on the front lines of the war he had managed to avoid for the past three years. In keeping with his promise to look after the boy, he brought Augustin with him back to France.
“You’ll like it in Paris,” he said, reassuringly, to the child.
They arrived in Paris one unusually mild evening in February 1918. Their first stop was a building on the Rue St. Denis. Guillaume knocked on the door of the flat on the second floor, which was answered by a small young woman of about thirty. She looked up at Guillaume through her spectacles and smiled at him.
“Hello Maude,” he said to her.
“Gérard,” she called into the flat, “It’s Guillaume.”
She opened the door to allow Guillaume and Augustin to come in.
“And who is this?” Maude asked when she noticed Augustin.
“This is Augustin,” Guillaume answered, “Say hello.”
“Hello Madame,” Augustin answered after some prompting.
“Hello Augustin, my name’s Maude.”
In the main room of the flat, a large man with a thick beard, the Gérard that Maude had been referring to, sat in an armchair smoking a pipe and a small boy of about three was playing on the floor with some marbles. The man stood up and shook hands with Guillaume.
“How are you,” he said, sitting back down “How was your sail?”
“Fine,” Guillaume answered, “Long.”
Gérard picked up the toddler off of the floor and put him on his knee.
“Say hello to your uncle, Léon.”
The little boy said something unintelligible in his treble voice.
“Maude told me that you’d had a boy,” Guillaume responded.
Augustin stood and stared at everything. He was usually a very outgoing child but had been made timid by being in a strange place with strange people.
“You arrived at just the right time, my dear brother,” Maude said to Guillaume, “dinner is just about ready.”
“Would you like me to help you set the table?” Guillaume answered.
“No, no, I can manage.”
The dinner which Maude had prepared ended with sugar cookies, her specialty, along with coffee for the adults and milk for the little boys. After dessert, they returned to the main room. Gérard fixed a pipe for himself and for Guillaume. Augustin and Léon played on the floor as if they were the best of friends.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Maude asked Guillaume in a soft voice, “Is Augustin your son?”
“Who is his mother?”
“Her name was Émilie. She was an Algerian girl and very beautiful. I loved her very much and would have married her if I could have. But she died of a fever and Augustin had no one but me.”
Maude took his large hands into her tiny ones, smiled, and then got up and went over to where Augustin and Léon were playing. She knelt down beside Augustin.
“Does your lion have a name?” she asked him.
“Asaad,” Augustin answered.
“And what kind of games does Asaad like to play?”
“Is he fast?”
“I bet I can run faster than him.”
Maude began to dash across the room with Augustin right behind her. They began to run from either end of the room several times. Augustin squealed with delight.
Guillaume gave an approving smile.
“I see Maude is still as much a tomboy as ever,” he said.
Guillaume took Maude aside the next morning after breakfast, telling her that he needed to speak to her about something.
“Would you look after Augustin while I’m away?” he asked her, “I can’t take him with me to the front and I have no else to send him.”
“Certainly,” she answered.
“I have no idea for long he will be living with you, or If I will come back at all.”
“Please do not talk that way, Guillaume.”
“If this war goes on for much longer, they’ll be taking Augustin and Léon soon.”