Chapter 44: Le Joie de Vivre
Ishaani woke up the next day to find the bed empty. Looking at the bed stand, she realized that it was 8 in the morning. Jumping from the bed, she managed to rush through her toiletries in the next 15 minutes swiftly, excitement coursing through her childishly. Hurriedly putting on her high-heeled boots, Ishaani quickly rushed down the staircase to see Martin, Claudine and Martha busy in animated conversation. Ranveer was nowhere to be seen.
The moment Ishaani reached the group, all the three of them gave her an excited look and hugged her, letting out greetings for the festive occasion. She yawned softly, her sleep incomplete due to the midnight mass and the dinner after that running up to two in the morning.
She gave Martin a questioning look and Martin spoke reassuringly.
"Don't worry, Madame. The children are fast asleep."
"That's alright. But I must say, you look amazing today." Martin gave her a sheepish look and Ishaani smiled. She had never seen Martin in any casual clothes save for his butler's suit, and the blue shirt and black trousers that he had on complimented his eyes, making him look much more charming.
"Madame, you are being gracious."
"Well, that's obvious that I'm bound to be so. Atleast you finally look human."
"But what did I look like before?"
"A penguin, to be honest." Claudine and Martha chuckled and Martin gave Ishaani a flustered look.
"Madame, you are bullying me."
"Oh Good Lord, Martin, stop talking like Ranveer. Speaking of which, where is he anyway?"
"Monsieur said that he will be back in some time. He told us to start opening the gifts."
Ishaani gave Martin an unsure look but the later nodded. Ishaani smiled and was about to pick up the first gift when she realized that there were none near the tree.
"But where are the gifts?" Before anyone could reply, a voice ensued from behind.
"Ho ho ho!" Ishaani turned around to see Santa Claus standing by the main gate in his entire attire, a huge sack on his shoulders. Santa trotted towards them, his belly shaking dangerously, while both Ishaani and Claudine burst out laughing at him.
Santa looked at them curiously before Ishaani managed to choke the words out, tears of hysterical laughter leaving her eyes freely.
"Ranveer, this is too much!" She and Claudine continued their laughing match before Claudine gasped and spoke quickly.
"You should have left this for Martin. Atleast he looks all convincing."
Ranveer scowled at both of them through his huge mass of snowy beard and both of them sobered down.
"Oh come on, don't pout like that. It makes Santa look invitingly adorable." Ishaani hugged Ranveer and Claudine cleared her throat loudly. Both Ishaani and Ranveer separated quickly, blushing furiously.
Ranveer looked at Claudine and frowned.
"Well, can we open the gifts now? Santa has got a lot of other stops as well."
"Oh alright, alright."
Ranveer bent down and opened his sack. Removing the gifts one by one, he stacked all of them by the tree so that by the next five minutes, the tree was loaded with a huge amount of gifts.
Claudine, Ishaani and Martin looked at Ranveer in shock before Ranveer chuckled and spoke.
"For the kids."
The three of them smiled at him softly and Claudine spoke sweetly.
"I change my mind about you. You make look like a misfit in the name of Santa, but your heart is as good as one."
Ranveer smiled and spoke happily.
"Come on, come on! The four of you exchange gifts first. Santa will hand out gifts last. But don't open them yet. I'll get out of this costume and be right back in 5 minutes."
The three of them nodded and Ranveer made a dash to his room. The gift boxes quickly made turns here and there, Claudine and Martin handing over their gifts to each other and the others while Ishaani handed over her gift to Martha. When Claudine and Martin didn't receive any, the former looked confused. Ishaani smiled sweetly.
"Oh don't look like that. Martha, Ranveer and myself have joint together and brought your gift." Claudine's face perked up considerably while Martin looked pleased.
"Oh do open the gifts."
Claudine and Martin went first, opening each other's gift with palpable excitement. Claudine opened hers to see a pearl necklace staring right back at her from a velvet green box. She looked taken aback before Martin spoke softly.
"My mother's." Claudine hugged him happily and gave him an admiring look.
"It's stunning." Martin relaxed and smiled back, while Claudine urged him to open her gift. On opening it, he looked surprised as a pair of turquoise cufflinks stared back at him.
"They are indeed beautiful." Both of them smiled at each other happily.
Ishaani then looked at Martha, who opened her gifts eagerly. Out came a plume hat from Ranveer, a brooch from Claudine, and a pair of topaz earrings from Ishaani. Martha was almost hallways through opening Martin's present when Ranveer joined them back and Ishaani quickly updated him on the gifts. Martha gasped as a copy of Romeo and Juliet fell out from the gift wrap and she stared at Martin in shock.
"You found this?" Martin nodded his head and spoke kindly.
"I remembered you mentioning once to me about this book that your late husband had given this to you when he had proposed." Martha looked stunned as she run her fingers over the copy, her eyes teary.
"I was so certain that I would never see this again." Martin looked at her lovingly.
"I remembered the inscription you told me about and when I saw the book and read it, all I could think was 'Voila!'. I thanked my stars that I could find it." Martha looked dumbfounded for several minutes before she looked at Martin, and spoke with emotion.
"Thank you, Martin. You could not have given me a better gift than this." Martha smiled and stroked his cheek lovingly. Ishaani asked inquisitively.
"What's the inscription?" Martha smiled at her sadly, opening the first page. Stroking her finger over the page fondly, she read:
"More often than not, I wish that I were dead. But then I get this frightening thought - what if you were not waiting on the other side?"
Silence reigned after Martha spoke the statement aloud, both the couples sharing uneasy looks at the statement's weight. Martha spoke absent-mindedly.
"Funny, how life's ironies are, aren't they? He gave this book to me as a sign that our love was meant to live eternally. He got that right, but unfortunately, we both paid a heavy price for it." When all the four of them gave sympathetic glances to Martha, she smiled. "Now don't let me become a party pooper. Ishaani, you're next."
Ishaani went next with the gifts, opening them with a newfound vigor. She opened Martin's gift first, a very old edition of Wuthering Heights. She gasped, and looked at Martin in shock.
"Martin... this is... these copies don't come anymore. This hasn't been published since Charlotte Brontë published the re-edited version. Where did you find this?"
"I searched a lot. Finally I found this at the display of a second-hand shop in Vouliagmeni, the same shop I found Madame Brandt's books in. It took me a lot of convincing to do before he agreed to part with the book."
Ishaani gave him a watery smiled and flung her arms around him. Martin gave Ranveer a startled look with her reaction and awkwardly patted her back. Breaking from the hug, Ishaani spoke softly.
"Thank you so much, Martin." Martin smiled happily and spoke again.
"The shopkeeper tells me that there is a beautiful inscription on the first page of this book as well."
Ishaani nodded and gingerly opened the first page of the book. She could make out that the copy was no less than nearly 70 years old, and from what she could decipher, the copy was amongst the first copies that were actually published.
Down on the page was a signature and Ishaani realized that the book was personally signed by Emily Brontë, then signed under the pseudonym of 'Ellis Bell'. Turning her attention towards the top of the page, she gently let her fingers trace over the written inscription, while she read it out aloud.
"Even though thou might know thy value of true love, it is thy part of life that determines whether thou truly lives or thou simply exists."
Ishaani let the words sink in and she spoke in dazed fascination.
"Martin, this is… beautiful."
"Madame, I am happy that you liked it."
Ishaani nodded and opened the next present, that was Claudine's. Out came a velvet box and she opened it, a gasp escaping her lips. Perched in the box were two amethyst earrings, dazzling brilliantly in the bright light. Claudine looked at her and smiled.
"These were my grandmother's. She too, was a woman of element and charm. She came to France wearing these, wanting to seek a name for herself. Her journey was painstakingly hard, but she found what she wanted nonetheless. She passed these earrings to my mom, symbolizing that she was handing them down so that we could seek inspiration from it. My mother handed me these earrings, this time with an extra statement - that I should hand these earring to a woman of substance, not necessarily my next of kin. So I hand these over to you."
Ishaani looked overwhelmed before speaking slowly.
"Claud... I cannot take these."
"I won't go over the whole emotional drama, but I'll state it short and sweet. You are family but moreover, you are a woman of substance and element. I've had loads of girlfriends, but never have I met one of your finesse. So please, I won't take no for an answer."
Ishaani looked at Ranveer pleadingly, but the latter simple shrugged his shoulders. She looked towards Claudine and smiled.
"Alright, I'll take them." Claudine smiled at her shrewdly.
"If you intend to return this back to me during my baby shower, you will be sorely disappointed." Ishaani blushed and let out a resigned huff.
"Fine, I'll keep them." Claudine nodded her head approvingly and Ishaani took the earring out from the box and put them on. Claudine gave her a dazzling smile.
"Now, don't they look stunning on you?!" Ishaani smiled sweetly and quickly turned to open the Martha's present. The latter looked at her keenly and said.
"This is for both you and Ranveer."
Both of them smiled at her and saw another similar velvet box. Bracing themselves, they opened the box together and let out a soft whistle. In the box were two titanium bands, the symbol of synchronized heart beats all around the band with a heart in the middle. A diamond was in between the heart, making the ring's appearance look aesthetic.
"I couldn't understand what to get the two of you, so I settled for this."
"Martha, this is magnificent."
"It indeed is."
Martha smiled at the two of them before speaking gleefully.
"Ishaani, now open Mr. Santa's gift." Ishaani took Ranveer's gift in her hand and frowned. The gift looked much more different in its shape and size. Opening the giftwrap slowly, she saw a brown envelop and gave Ranveer a confused look. Ranveer smiled at her and she felt the intensity of mystery double up in the air as she pulled out the contents from the mysterious envelop. She read through them swiftly and stared at them dumbfounded for several minutes before she turned to look at Ranveer and whispered fearfully.
"Is this... true?" Ranveer nodded his head and Ishaani pulled him in for a bone-crushing hug, sobbing openly into his arms. Ranveer smiled and stroked her hair lovingly while Claudine and Martin looked alarmed at her sudden outburst. Martha smiled broadly and Ranveer whispered after some time, finally breaking the suspense.
"Yes, Neapolitan City is now yours."
Martin and Claudine gave out shouts of joy and hugged each other while Ishaani broke free from her hug and stared at Ranveer in stunned disbelief.
"How did you do it?"
"Does it matter? Just think of it as my redemption for the mistake I'd done earlier." Ishaani gave Ranveer a curious look while Martha shifted her feet uncomfortably. She was about to speak when Ranveer shook his head and she fell silent.
Ishaani and Ranveer stared at each other for several minutes, before the former pulled the latter in for a kiss. Martin turned his face away and 'tched' in discomfort, while Martha chuckled. Claudine let them have their moment before she spoke.
"My poor kids are traumatized."
Ishaani and Ranveer both didn't pay any attention to what she said and stared at each other, both of them teary eyed.
"I love you."
"I love you too."
Ranveer and Ishaani smiled at each other, while Martha spoke softly from behind.
"Son, open up your presents as well." Ranveer nodded his head and quickly opened the first box from Claudine that revealed a similar pair of cufflinks. Ranveer smiled at Claudine and spoke affectionately.
"Give Mr. LeBlanc my heartfelt gratitude." Claudine smiled, while Ranveer opened the second gift from Martin. Out came a watch and Ranveer looked at Martin happily.
"Gee Martin, thanks!"
"I know it isn't half as good," Martin saw Ranveer grit his teeth and continued quickly. "But I hoped you would like it. It's one of the things my father left me as my family heirloom. I wanted you to have it."
"Thank you, Martin. This does mean a lot to me."
"As an added bonus, I did get that collectible repaired. It’s just as new as it was when you brought it home." Ranveer's face brightened up while Ishaani's gave an exasperated look.
"Just when Christmas looked good, you had to do this." Martin and Ranveer smiled and Ishaani couldn't help but let her lips twitch in amusement. Ranveer now opened Ishaani's present. Out came a pen that Ranveer instantly recognized and he smiled.
"Mota Babuji's pen. I didn't know that you still had it with you."
"I wanted to give you a good keepsake for Christmas." Ranveer and Ishaani smiled at each other in mutual understanding while Claudine shuffled her feet impatiently.
"But where's our present!?"
"Oh calm down, Claud. I was just getting to that." Ranveer nodded to Martha and Ishaani and both of them ascended upstairs. Ranveer continued. "Martin, get Claudine up to the first landing by the lift." Martin looked confused but obliged nonetheless.
Martin and Claudine reached the first floor and saw Ranveer, Ishaani and Martha whispering excitedly. The moment the three of them noticed the couple's presence, they sobered down and tried to put up a decent look. Martin and Claudine walked up to the place where they were standing and realized that it were the connecting rooms, the only two rooms where no children occupied room.
"What's going on?"
Martin and Claudine gave each other confused looks and Ranveer smiled.
"On the count of three. 1. 2. 3." Ranveer swung open the door open and Martin and Claudine walked in. Ishaani switched on the lights and both Claudine and Martin gasped.
The room was no longer its staple richly furnished one, but was instead made into a children's nursery. The room was choicely decorated, the bed being replaced by a huge twin baby cot, while the room was filled with paraphernalia related to the children's toys and other utensils. The room's bluish-purple hue went brilliantly with the furniture and both Martin and Claudine could decipher the tasteful choices that were taken into account.
Overwhelmed and touched with this gesture, they unlocked the adjoint door and saw that the room was now looking inhabitable. Ranveer spoke from behind.
"This is your room from now. And the adjoint is for the kids. We decided that it was better to give you the adjoint one so that you are closest to the kids, while you are comfortable as well." Claudine smiled but Martin's smile faded away.
"Monsieur, I cannot accept this."
"Monsieur, I can't."
"Look, I don't want to spend Christmas explaining it to you, so let me be straight. I'm not doing this because of you or even Claudine. I'm doing it because I love those kids just as much as the two of you and I want them to be happy. All my life, I've seen my father work as a servant, and trust me, as much as I was proud of him, I hated seeing him like that. I'm proud of what I was as well, but trust me, I don't want your children to feel what I have. So please, if you call yourself family, do behave like one. Gone were the days when you were my helper and butler. I let you do it because you are too stubborn to be convinced otherwise, but please, I won't hear an argument on this."
Martin looked at Ranveer irritably, opening his mouth several times but deciding against it. When Ranveer finished speaking, Martin looked at him silently for several minutes, contemplating a few things in his mind before he spoke, resignation evident in his voice.
"Alright, Monsieur. I won't make an argument over this. And on Claudine's behalf as well, I accept this.” Ranveer smiled, but before he could reply, Martin exploded, even though he clearly looked like he could not help it. “Monsieur, how will I ever repay you?!"
"By shutting up and giving me a hug." Both the men gave each other a warm smile and hugged each other while Claudine, Ishaani and Martha held hands, their eyes brimming with emotion. All five of them smiled broadly as they suddenly heard the excited whoops and cheers from the living room. Martha shrugged her shoulders, smiling at the four of them.
"Well, I guess the kids are up."
That night, Ranveer and Ishaani sat in the room, calmly staring off into space. Both of them were re-living the moments from the entire day, starting with the children excitedly opening their gifts to all five of them having their lunch in the igloo, as they watched the kids play in the snow. The kids went back to the orphanage in the evening, giving warm hugs to all of them, bidding tearful farewells at the same time. Dinner later was a sumptuous yet subdued affair, the absence of the kids weighing down on all of them. Martha had retired back to her place for the night, while Claudine and Martin had shifted into their new room, both of them still reluctant.
After some time, Ishaani spoke quietly.
"It was indeed one of the most amazing Christmases I've ever celebrated."
"Yeah, the kids were certainly the cherry on the cake."
"I'm glad that we could give them such a good time. Those were some brilliant gifts, not to mention the igloo lunch. That was good. How did you arrange for the gifts so soon?"
"Well, I was Santa now, wasn't I?" Ishaani chuckled.
"We received some amazing ones as well."
"Oh yeah. Those are some memorable gifts." Ranveer nodded his head and Ishaani continued. "I'm glad Martin took it well."
"For now." Ishaani didn't need telling twice by what Ranveer implied. Instead, she took another track.
"I can't believe we won the library back. Why didn't you tell me about it earlier?"
"I wanted to give you a surprise. Besides, Martha got me the papers last afternoon itself. The verdict was just out."
"But I don't understand. Why is it on my name?"
"It’s because the only way I could save it was by buying it. So I thought that since I was buying it out anyway on a 51-49% partnership, I might as well do it in your name."
"That's sweet. Atleast Martha and I both have a share in its ownership." Ranveer sat silently for a few minutes before he asked quietly.
"You knew about Martha being the owner?"
"Yes. It was a month ago. One afternoon, Martha had sent me over to her place to fetch some documents. One thing led to another and I found the ownership papers along with the power of attorney one with Martha's name on it. I asked Martha about it and she told me the whole thing. She made me swear never to mention it to another person, not even you."
"Martha swore me into a similar oath, funnily enough." Both of them looked at each other and smiled gently. Ishaani spoke again.
"Martha said that I could get back to the library from tomorrow."
"This Christmas was indeed magical now, wasn't it?"
"It was bound to be. Afterall, this Christmas did stand for what it usually does - to celebrate the joie de vivre."