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Authors: Elizabeth Ross

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BOOK: Belle Epoque
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“I got your note.” He looks sheepish. This is the first time I’ve seen a crack in his confidence. I suppose he’s embarrassed about being drunk, but I hope … Could it be something more? I think of the composition he was working on,
“La Bretonne.” Could
it be about me?

Recovering his composure, he says, “I made some progress on the composition. Shall I play it for you?”

Did he just read my thoughts? “Please.”

He pulls a chair up for me, removes his musician’s black jacket and takes his seat behind the piano. He changes the sheet music, flashes me the quickest of smiles, then focuses and begins to play.

The ripple of keys is like a stream of clear water. The melody is sweet and pure, but there is a sorrow—no, that’s not the right word—a longing underneath its current. The piece pleads with my emotions, coaxing them out of their hiding place; they float to the surface. It is as though his music is coming from inside me: it isn’t the acting out of a feeling, it is the feeling itself. Everything I have kept locked up—my dreams of Paris, the disappointment of my job, the fear, dread and desperation—and at the outside of it all, hope. My eyes smart; my lips quiver as the music floods over me and the longing I’ve always felt to make something of myself—to escape the village and find another life—pours out of me.

Paul finishes and rests his hands gently in his lap, and the room, so full of life when he played, becomes paler and smaller in the absence of the music. He looks at me. He doesn’t speak, but his hazel eyes are asking what I thought.

I can barely croak a whisper. “Beautiful, Paul. It is incredibly beautiful.”

“It’s not finished yet. I worry that it’s not the sort of thing people will like. Is it even good?”

How can he doubt himself? “You must share it, you must,” I say. “It’s important. What a gift, to be able to create something that can speak directly to another person without words or explanation.”

“You have an artist’s soul, Maude. I hope—”


Une bière
, Monsieur Paul?” the barman interrupts from across the room. “Maybe a drink for the young lady?”

What was he going to say? I wonder. What does he hope? “You want something?” he asks me.

I shake my head. “No, thanks.”

Paul laughs. “I shouldn’t either, or it will confirm your suspicions of me as a drunken bohemian.” He calls to the barman,
“Non, ça va, merci, Jules!”

I want to share my new interest in photography with him, but I hold back. How could I ever explain that my “pupil” has taught me such a thing? Instead I ask him, “When will you play the new piece for the public?”

“I have a concert planned with some friends. We get to try out our new compositions on some rich music lovers.”

“You will play wonderfully, I’m sure of it. And then one day they will play your music at the Opéra de Paris.”

He leans forward and kisses my cheek.
“T’es gentille.”

The kiss isn’t like
les bises
, the greeting people give when they meet, but something more affectionate. Looking at him this close makes me want to lean forward and fall into an embrace. My gloves fall from my lap. Glad of the distraction, I bend down to pick them up and compose myself with a deep breath.

I stay for a while with Paul as the other band members appear and customers begin to trickle in. I even stay for the first dance or two. It feels easy to be in the company of Paul and his friends. There aren’t the same rules of etiquette and manners as with the aristocrats. And I don’t have to be on my guard all
the time, figuring out what’s going on beneath the smooth conversations and judging looks of the idle rich.

When I walk home afterward, I take my time. Even though it’s freezing, my mantle keeps me warm. Or maybe it’s the evening spent with Paul that makes me feel this way.

Later on, when I’m lying in bed, I look between the parted curtains at the night sky. Paris: what a world away from the windswept cloud of the Breton shore, where rain clouds dissolve into ocean, the horizon forever obscured—one shade of gray fading into another. There are so many ways to live here: what is my path?

T
IME HAS CHARGED PAST, AND
it’s Christmas Eve already. I am to spend the holidays with the Duberns. When a dinner guest innocently mentioned that Madame Vary had gone to the South of France to escape the cold, I had to think on my feet. I told Isabelle that my aunt’s physician prescribed the trip for her health and that I didn’t mind her leaving me behind. Nonetheless, Isabelle made a scene and the countess was forced to invite me to stay for the week, now that I’m supposedly alone in Paris. The countess didn’t bank on having to maintain the fiction of our connection.

At the agency I have packed a trunk of clothes from my special wardrobe that I’ll need for the week. It’s crammed full, and I struggle with it as I make my way along the hall.

“Maude!” Laurent comes to my aid. “I’ll take that downstairs for you.”


Merci
, Laurent.”

I stretch my back for a moment as he hauls the trunk along
the wooden floor toward the staircase. “What have you got in here?” he calls out to me. “Are you smuggling Marie-Josée with you?”

At the mention of her name, I feel a pang of guilt. It’s been ages since we’ve spent time together. I’ve been too busy with the Duberns. Before I can wallow too much, though, I realize I’ve forgotten something.

“I’ll be right back,” I tell Laurent. I forgot the sable hat. I’m supposed to wear it tonight to Christmas Eve Mass.

I run back along the corridor toward my wardrobe.

“Maude!” I hear Marie-Josée call out behind me. She scuttles down the corridor, catching up to me outside the storage room. “You were off at quite a clip.” Her face is redder than usual, and her breathing is heavy from effort.

I squeeze her arm. “I haven’t seen you in forever.” It is nice to see her, but I don’t really have time to gossip.

I unlock the cupboard and begin rummaging through the hatboxes.

“Help me find a hat,” I tell her.

“Which one?”

“Sable fur.”

As we upturn boxes, Marie-Josée says, “I just wanted to make sure you’re still coming over for
le Réveillon
feast tonight. My sister has been cooking up a storm all week.”

She mentioned something about this a while ago, but I completely forgot until now. I stop my search for the hat for a moment and look at her. “Oh, no, I can’t.” I feel terrible, but what can I do? “I have to work.”

“On Christmas? Surely not.” She stops helping me and folds
her arms. “Agency policy is we all get to leave early tonight and have the next two days off.” With her ample frame squeezed into the small space, I feel a little bit cornered.

I shrug apologetically. “I would love to spend Christmas with your family instead of working. But I have to go. Durandeau said.”

And the truth is I’m quite excited about spending a week in the luxury of the Dubern home.

I continue my search for the hat, flipping open the lids of a couple more boxes, peeking beneath layers of tissue paper.

“You should speak to Durandeau about it,” Marie-Josée goes on, riled up on my behalf.

“I think he’s charging double for the holiday,” I say. “He agreed that I’ll get paid extra too.” Eventually I find the hat hiding under a pile of scarves. “Here it is.” It’s a plush tan-colored fur with a sprig of feathers on the side—I’ve been hoping to wear it ever since the weather turned cold.

“I’ll go with you if you want,” says Marie-Josée.

“Go where?” My voice sounds sharp, though I don’t mean for it to.

“To speak to Durandeau about working on Christmas.”

I try to be patient. I hold the hat between us. “No, you don’t have to. It would be pointless.” My tone is too firm, so I temper it with a smile. “Well, I found it,” I say, looking down at the hat, conveniently avoiding her eyes. I feel bad but I wish she weren’t bothering me about this now. The carriage is waiting. I nod toward the door. “I suppose I should be going.”

Marie-Josée takes the hint and turns to leave the box room. She hovers next to me in the hallway as I lock up. “It’s a shame
we’re having a roast for dinner. And the children are so looking forward to meeting you.”

“That’s right, you have three nieces.”

She shakes her head. “Two nieces and a nephew.”

I do feel guilty, even though it’s not my decision. “I’m sorry. I don’t have a choice, Marie-Josée.” I kiss her on the cheek. “I can’t say no to the Duberns.”

“If you have to work, you have to work, I suppose. I just don’t see a lot of you these days.” Her jolly face looks hard for once. “This job has taken over your life. I just assumed Christmas would be a safe-enough bet.”

The carriage is waiting for me downstairs and I feel the soft fur of the hat against the palm of my hand.

“I know, I’m sorry. Give your family my best,” I say cheerily. “I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful holiday.”

Marie-Josée simply stands in the hallway as I turn to leave. I run to the stairs and out to the waiting carriage. I can feel her eyes on my back, watching me go.

M
IDNIGHT
M
ASS IS A SPECTACULAR
affair in Paris. I had no idea church could be a social scene for the aristocracy instead of the God-fearing chore I am used to. Normally I’m agitated, bottom numbed on the hard pew and counting the minutes till it’s over—especially on Christmas, when there is the Réveillon feast to look forward to.

Back home I had to endure church with Papa every Sunday: as the proprietor of the general store, he liked to think of himself as one of the pillars of the community in the way a priest or a doctor is. He would insist we attend Mass together to set a good example. The lengthy sermon ate into my precious day off, but afterward I was free, and I’d spend time on the beach.

The ocean doesn’t respect Sunday rules. Waves crash and pound the shore and seagulls screech into the cutting wind. It’s wholly disorganized—a mess of stones, broken shells and seaweed strewn about. I would find my rock and sit by the
mermaid’s handprint—an indentation in the stone, shaped like a small hand—buffeted and chilled by the wind. But I didn’t mind the weather. I enjoyed the drama and exhilaration of Mother Nature’s Sunday sermon more than Father Leguin’s.

But tonight in la Madeleine, I wonder if I’m not at the opera. There is the beauty of the building itself, the other worshippers in their furs and finery and the choir’s angelic voices. The whole scene is bathed in the heavenly light from hundreds of candles. Tonight I sing with exuberance, not for Jesus’s birth so much as for my own good fortune at being able to take part in the splendor.

We return home after the
Messe de minuit
to an incredible feast attended by the Duberns’ extended family. There is the countess’s sister—attractive, but not stunning like the countess herself—and her husband with their young boys; some other second cousins; and the count’s younger brother, Isabelle’s favorite uncle, who gave her the camera.

I take a sip of wine—I now know the difference between cheap wine by the carafe and a fine vintage from the count’s cellar. A servant helps me to a second portion of goose, even though I know I can’t finish it. The cousins make faces at each other; it’s late and they are giddy with tiredness. Isabelle’s uncle is seated next to me. His conversation is easy and his blue blood seems to have some bohemian spirit coursing through it. Even the countess appears softer this evening. With just the family here tonight, the atmosphere is relaxed. For once I don’t have to worry about potential suitors or the countess’s marriage plans for her daughter. I can just enjoy myself.

After dinner the family retires to the drawing room to exchange presents. There is a roaring fire and a Christmas tree, and a nativity scene of little painted figurines is set up on a table by the window. The room smells of spiced nuts and
vin chaud
. I don’t expect to be included in the presents, but the countess beckons me over and hands me a box. On top sits a card that reads
In great appreciation of your friendship with Isabelle
. I feel the dark shadow of guilt hover overhead, because I know she’s rewarding my role as a repoussoir with this token. It feels like a Christmas bonus from an employer, not a gift of true affection. When I open the box, I find, to my astonishment, a gorgeous jeweled bracelet shining against the black velvet lining of the box. It’s similar to the one she let me try on a few months ago. I can’t believe her generosity, and I put it on immediately.

BOOK: Belle Epoque
5.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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