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Authors: Elizabeth Ross

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BOOK: Belle Epoque
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“Mademoiselle Pichon.” Durandeau’s voice makes me start, and I’m pulled from my imagination back into his apartment. “You will carry off the dinner tonight and you will attend the ball next week.” He wipes his mouth with a crisp napkin. “Moreover, I want you to angle for another high-profile event with the family. There’s a whole season to exploit.”

I nod stiffly. The pressure to succeed with Isabelle Dubern feels like a hand clasping my throat, squeezing tighter with each task that’s asked of me. I find it increasingly hard to breathe.

T
HE HORSES STOP IN THE
courtyard of the Dubern home, and we step out of Madame Vary’s carriage and approach the house. I can’t help but look up in awe at the lights shining; I lose count from how many windows. The front door opens and it’s as though the curtain is rising in the theater on opening night. I am walking toward the dazzle of the footlights, nearly paralyzed by stage fright. We pass through a marble vestibule into an imposing entrance hall. I have never set foot in such a grand home. One servant takes our cloaks and another leads us up the large, curved staircase. As we ascend I take in the paintings lining the wall; the oil paint reflects the chandelier lights, giving the somber family portraits a hint of life.

We continue down a carpeted hallway where Madame Vary smoothes the skirts of her dress and flashes a quick smile in a mirror—in her case, vanity is a burden that requires constant attention. One advantage of my position is that I don’t need
the reassurance of checking my own appearance. Instead I concentrate on the servant as he opens the double doors to the drawing room, and with my heart in my mouth I step over the threshold. My breath catches in my throat. Tapestries, paintings, velvet curtains and plush settees crowd the room. There is a roaring fire, and gilded mirrors catch the light from a myriad of lamps. This isn’t the petty bourgeois furnishing of the agency: this is luxury.

A man whom I assume is the count is speaking to two older couples—a tableau of gray hair and pearls sipping cocktails. On seeing us, he immediately gets up and greets Madame Vary. I hover in her shadow as he takes her hand and kisses it in a low bow. Elegantly dressed in white tie and tails and patent leather shoes, he isn’t tall, but he is full of charm and looks at least ten years older than the countess. He gives me a curt bow and immediately returns his attention to Madame Vary; he holds her gaze longer than politeness would require. Parisian manners or flirtation, I can’t judge.

I’m introduced to everyone, but in my present state it’s impossible for me to retain their long names or how they are connected to my hosts. I register only a kaleidoscope of pampered faces and fragments of conversations.

“Terrible business, he bankrupted that family; a good name thrown in the gutter,” gossips one of the pearls-and-gray-hair set.

“Eiffel’s tower is becoming a monstrosity indeed,” says a man with military posture. “A blight on the skyline with each day that passes.”

“It won’t last: it will be torn down in a year and we’ll get our Paris back,” assures a woman with a shimmering sapphire at her throat.

Seated on a couch with Madame Vary, I wonder where Isabelle and the countess are: waiting to make an entrance, perhaps. I watch as more guests trickle in and the count plays host. Maybe Isabelle is being as enthusiastic about evening dresses as she was about hats. Finally, in a swish of skirts, the countess swans in with Isabelle in tow. Their arrival is the cue that my own performance is about to begin in earnest, and my head begins to swim with agency rules, Girard’s training and Marie-Josée’s advice. The countess greets her guests. In a stunning emerald-green gown, she wears the medal of handsomest woman in the room with ease. Isabelle looks less confident but is also beautiful in a magenta silk—she is touted like a mascot, her mother’s protégée. They shine like jewels and I shrink back in my seat. The lace of my dowdy dress has started to make me itch.

The countess and Isabelle eventually make their way across the room to where Madame Vary and I are seated. When the countess reaches us, she looks at me with a glimmer in her eye. “Isabelle, keep Maude company while I steal her aunt away for a moment.”

Madame Vary practically leaps off the settee, grateful for the rescue. The countess steers her friend across the room and I can hear her saying, “You must meet our good friend from England, Lord Blackwood.”

As soon as her mother’s back is turned, Isabelle looks me up and down and says, “Did Madame Vary condone that dress you’re wearing, or are you in mourning?”

She’s spiteful, and I fight to be polite. “I’m not one for fashion,” I murmur.

“It’s a wonder you’re related, for that’s all she cares about. But then again, you’re not a blood relative of hers, are you?”

Could Isabelle know more than she lets on? She cuts through my veil of composure because she’s right, of course, both about my dress—designed to underwhelm—and about my relationship to Madame Vary. But I can’t let her bully me. I think of Marie-Josée’s advice and decide to strike back. “I wouldn’t want my aunt to dress me, if that’s what you mean. I’m not a child.”

Her head whips around; her eyes fasten on mine. I touched a nerve, I see. To emphasize my point, I let my eyes flicker over her tasteful dress. “Did your mother pick out yours? It’s so pretty and feminine.”

Her eyes harden; then she looks away. I wait for her to retaliate, but she only stares at the other guests, her expression sullen. Could this possibly be a truce?

Naturally I’m seated near Isabelle at dinner. The table is glittering with crystal and polished cutlery. Attending us is a battalion of servants, as many as there are guests. My first mistake is when I thank the servant who pours me a glass of wine. Several pairs of eyes note this aberration, and I remember, too late, Girard’s affected voice reminding us that
one doesn’t address the servants or make significant eye contact—servants are invisible
. The next faux pas comes with the soup course and my incorrect choice of cutlery. I glance at my neighbor and switch to the
correct spoon, thinking no one noticed. But when I look up I realize Isabelle’s eyes are fixed on me, watching my mistakes, one after the other.

As the dinner wears on, I am grateful that Isabelle and I aren’t expected to engage in conversation but rather to listen to our elders. But my relative calm is broken when the middle-aged woman opposite asks, “Mademoiselle Pichon, is it your debut season also?”

I have a piece of smoked trout in my mouth. “Yes,” I answer, swallowing hard. I feel the bit of fish lodge itself in my gullet, but I continue. “My aunt is giving me the benefit of a season in Paris.” I say it just the way Madame Vary and I rehearsed in the carriage ride over.

“And where is your family from?
Vous avez un petit accent
.”

In one short utterance she has seen through the masking of my Breton accent. “I’m from a small village near …” Frantically I try to remember the town Monsieur Vary’s family is from. But will she believe me? I begin to mouth “Dieppe,” when Madame Vary speaks over me.

“My husband’s family is from Deauville, in Normandy.”

“Of course, I remember now,” says the woman, and the flicker of suspicion passes as the conversation moves on to weather in the region. I should be grateful for the upper-class Parisian contempt of the provinces—to them, every country accent melds into one.

Marie-Josée was not wrong about the food. It’s fit for royalty: watercress soup, foie gras, smoked trout, roast goose and then lamb cutlets with an unpronounceable sauce. The rich eat with a careless disregard. As each new course arrives and the
previous one removed, I note that mine is the only plate ever scraped clean. The others are messy with uneaten food. Even though Lord Blackwood accepted a second helping of goose, he took only one bite. His leftovers would be considered a feast back home. I look at his plump cheeks, paunchy belly and smooth, manicured hands and realize that this is a man who never goes without: the cupboard is never bare. Having more of something to him means merely asking a servant. I bite my lip as I look down at my plate and wonder: Is it bad manners to finish the food you’re given? Could it be an upper-class rule of etiquette Girard omitted to teach us?

After dinner Isabelle and I are both camped out on the divan in the far corner. I am relieved to have made it through dinner and estimate we must have passed the halfway mark of the evening. The drawing room begins to fill up as more guests arrive for drinks and mingling. The countess works the room. She is a beacon of emerald light for the moths in white tie and tails. I get the impression that everyone wants to be near her and talk to her. Isabelle sighs loudly. Remembering the rules, I rally myself and venture to engage her in conversation.

“Are all these people friends of your family?”

“Friends?” She laughs. “You should know—society isn’t about friendship, it’s about alliances.”

She makes it sound like warfare. “And the Englishman?” A natural enemy, surely.

“Lord Blackwood is a friend of the Prince of Wales—at least, that’s what he claims. His proximity to royalty makes him godlike in my mother’s eyes. Thankfully for me, he’s already married.”

I look over and see that the countess is indeed talking to Lord Blackwood. She is captivated, and the English lord leans in close to her.

Isabelle gets up. “Come on,” she says, and pulls me to my feet. “The guests will keep her busy for a while, and we won’t be missed.” I glance back at the countess, concerned that we’re being rude by leaving, but she is so deep in conversation she doesn’t notice.

I follow Isabelle out of the brightly lit drawing room, and she leads me down the hall in the opposite direction from the grand staircase, then along a narrow passageway and down another set of stairs. This section at the back of the house feels more functional, for servants’ use, perhaps.

“Where are we going?” I ask Isabelle. I look back, wondering if I could retrace my steps on my own. “Are you sure your mother won’t mind us disappearing?”

“Don’t be such a bore, Maude. Would you rather be stuck up there listening to their trivial conversations?”

“I suppose not.”

We’re on the ground floor of the house, and groping along a dark passageway, I follow her through a glass door and into a conservatory—home to exotic flowers and the smell of mildew. There are no lamps lit in this part of the house, but moonlight shines through the glass walls, revealing rows of plants and wrought iron furniture. I can see roses, lilies and gardenias. The sweet smell of honey and orange is overpowering, and I marvel at the blooms in the silvery light.

Now that we’ve made our escape, it comes as a relief to be
away from the adults. Isabelle takes off her gloves and throws them on a table. “How I hate these long dinners.” She’s impervious to the beauty of her surroundings and slumps into a chair, crushing her dress. “And now that it’s my season, there will be many more nights like this.”

She looks like a wilted flower, drooping by the window. I don’t understand; surely most rich girls anticipate their seasons with impatience and excitement.

I wander along the rows of flowers. “What are these called?” I ask, looking at the Latin name on the card next to one grouping. “
Paphio
 … something.”

Isabelle gets up and crosses the conservatory toward me. She glances at the flower. “The orchid,
Paphiopedilum
.”

I touch one of the ivory petals. “It sounds like a disease,” I say.

She laughs. “Father’s obsessed with collecting rare specimens.” But just as quickly her smile vanishes and her face hardens. “My parents treat me like one of these hothouse flowers. Cultivated to be beautiful, bred to decorate a rich man’s home.”

Her words take me by surprise. “Isn’t that what the season is all about—finding a match?”

She looks at me with that clenched-jaw seriousness I’ve seen before, her eyes bright and fierce. “Not to anyone my mother picks.” This time I don’t take her changing mood personally. Her temper is directed at her parents and her season, not at me.

I leave the orchids and continue to explore the conservatory. I turn down a row of roses and pause to look at the colorful
blooms. She remains in the orchid row, a corridor of flowers between us.

“You’re not really the late Monsieur Vary’s niece, are you?” Isabelle asks, looking across at me.

I freeze. My stomach drops. “Why do you say that?” Panic sets in; how could she see through me so quickly?

“You’re from
her
side of the family, aren’t you—the poor side.”

My body relaxes, grateful for her wrong guess. But I keep strolling and play along. “Does it matter?” I ask.

“To your aunt it does.” Isabelle keeps pace with me. Our footsteps making syncopated clicking sounds on the stone floor; I feel pursued.

“Mother says Madame Vary married above her class. But I suppose you knew that.”

Having her believe I’m from a lowly background isn’t dangerous for my cover, it’s advantageous. After all, I am the poor relation in many ways.

She continues prying. “Maybe with your aunt’s help you’ll snatch a rich husband yourself this season.”

BOOK: Belle Epoque
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