Ile Sainte Marguerite
Yesterday we took a 20-minute ferry from Cannes to the island of St. Marguerite, where the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned for 11 years, from 1687 until 1698. Our guides were André and Jacqueline Letullier, our intrepid French friends from Mougins. We walked through tall groves of eucalyptus and pine trees, toured the fort and prison, had a long lunch at one of the two restaurants on the little island, swam, and returned to Cannes sun-soaked and satisfied.
André filled me in on what has to be the most alluring theory of the prisoner’s identity. In this story, Louis XIV imprisoned his twin brother to avoid complications in the royal succession. I imagined this scenario as I stood in the unknown prisoner’s cell, which was a large room with a high, vaulted ceiling and three separate rows of snarling iron bars blocking escape through the window. Beyond the bars, far below, lay the perfectly blue sea. I fingered one of the bars, remembering my boyhood infatuation with the Count of Monte Cristo, wondering how many years of scratching that iron it would take to make even the smallest progress toward freedom. The mystery prisoner of St. Marguerite was constantly guarded, masked, and not allowed to speak with anyone. Meanwhile, maybe, his twin brother was off enjoying life as the Sun King.
This morning I read a long New York Times feature, published June 12th as part of the newspaper’s powerful series on class in America. I could not stop reading the story of Angela Whitiker’s climb from life in a gang-run housing project to life as a registered nurse driving her kids to Little League in an SUV. But it wasn’t the Horatio Alger aspect of the story that impressed me. It was the sense of how my life has been so incredibly fortunate compared to the life of Ms. Whitiker. Because the story was so well-written, it was impossible not to relate to her, to see the world through her eyes. So as I sat at the dining room table early this morning, in our temporary home in Cannes, I got a taste of 10-hour night shifts at the hospital where Richard Speck killed eight nurses, and for the terror Angela Whitiker felt as she arrived two hours early to take the nursing certification test that would grant her entrance into the middle class. In the light of her life, I feel as if I live at Versailles, and I am emboldened to live as purposefully as I can today. I had a similar feeling leaving the unknown prisoner’s cell and walking back out into the sunlight of the Cote D’Azur. What would the Man in the Iron Mask have done with the freedom which I take for granted? Maybe snuck off to Versailles for an short, unpleasant talk with his brother.