To Paris, 1861
The train, nearly empty when I boarded, had filled. La Loupe, Chartres, Rambouillet, Versailles—each station a fresh roar of voices, a jostling of shoulders and parcels and luggage. The car smelled of damp wool and iron; musky sweat and sour bodies, windows grimy with soot and dusk. In the seat next to me, empty an hour ago, was a stranger wearing the crumbs of his dinner—bread and Camembert. Once inside the Porte Maillot the carriage halted suddenly, went black for an instant of silence, a gasping intake of breath: “Next, Saint-Lazare!” We shuddered forward. I squeezed shut my eyes, wishing it all away? And abruptly smacked my head against the rail on the seat ahead, bone against iron; a wave of dizziness and emotion
—Wait, turn back the clock, is it all a terrible mistake? A charred, acrid odor.
“They’ll be unloading us directly from the station to the hospital wards soon enough,” muttered the stranger, brushing crumbs off his waistcoat. “Just drop us off at La Salpêtrière!”
Paris. My aching brow. The bump was already beginning to swell into an egg.
“ . . . A hat, you goose—gloves,” Stephan had said, thrusting into my hands these unfamiliar items, companions to the soft silk of the dress I was wearing. “You can’t go about Paris bare-fisted and naked above the neck!” Now the veil’s decorative flecks swarmed before my eyes, an irritating nest of spots.
In the cab, scents of horse and leather, musky cologne in the chilly air; my breath misting the window. Sharp, rolling turn down an ancient alley with walls close enough to touch. A stairway too steep to climb, cut into stone; rusted iron loops for handholds and strips of cloth on a blackened beam for a door. I hung hard to a strap as the cab took a steep, winding descent.
“Passage Tivoli, rue Saint-Lazare!” came the shout, and I reached for my handbag. Fat, stuffed to bursting, the flimsy thing, but I counted out every last sou of the fare. The driver threw a curse behind me; I flushed hot under my veil. In my limited experience of travel, Stephan had paid, and undoubtedly tipped, the cabmen. Before that, it was the rutted market road to Mirande on the back of a mule, or we traveled on foot, and not very far.
Dusk had fallen. A double archway led to an arcade divided from the road by a gutter; suspended lanterns swayed above, with illuminated letters: HÔTELS: TIVOLI, NO. 1; LISIEUX, NO. 2; VAUCLUSE, NO. 3. Every surface was plastered with placards and signs—generations of ruined broadsheets and framed notices for SALONS. CHAMBRES. CABINETS. Gaslit signs, lozenge-shaped, glowed above the hotel entrances, and a dubious gust scattered debris into a corner. Stephan had said that rooms in Paris were in short supply.
The Tivoli was nearest, and from behind the desk, Madame evaluated the scrap of black velvet on my head and its drag of veil; ran her eye over my smooth, strangled fingers clutching the strings of my handbag. Her shawl had a fringe of jet beads that clicked like a patter of rain, or Maman’s rosary when she tackled her penitence after months of neglect.
Silently, the required envelope crossed the counter, white against the pitted mahogany. Its edge was firm, unsullied as fresh linen; the seal, red wax like a drop of blood, once hot and now congealed. I had laughed, the afternoon Stephan dipped his pen, finished, and dusted the page. We weren’t drinking champagne then, but tingling bubbles were still in our noses. “You’ll see how things are done in Paris!”
Madame slipped a knife under the wax and, with great and slow deliberation, unfolded the document inside, a thick, milky sheet. Her eyes narrowed and her gaze slipped over the page; then from the page to me and back again—cataloguing qualities unknown, the way my cousin cast his eye over the beam of a measuring scale as he slit open the bellies of the ducks and geese to weigh their livers for foie de canard, foie d’oie. Now, Madame’s eyes narrowed again with an opinion, the kind that is a known truth to the rest of the world. I had an impulse to turn and flee—but where?
“Haussmann is nearly on our doorstep with the tear-down boys,” she said finally, with a solicitude purchased, perhaps, by Stephan’s pen. “There’s not a room left on the Passage, but you’re lucky tonight, Mademoiselle Rigault. Yes? Very well then.” She slid the envelope back across the desk; now it showed a pinkish stain where the wax had been. “Ladies’ curfew at seven, sharp. No gentlemen above stairs. We have no improprieties here.” She gave me another beakish, penetrating look. “Candles twenty sous, gas is not piped all the way up.” Outside, from the bar à vin across the Passage, came shouts and drunken, echoing laughter.
My throat ached; the lump on my brow throbbed; my belly gave a hollow stab and a rush of heat rose behind my eyes . . . Paris. City of light, center of the World. Of civilization; of art. It took several matches, cheap and smoldering, to ignite a taper that revealed the attributes of room 12 atop an interminable stair: a scrap of carpet worn down to the threads, walls spidered with cracks, and a sagging mattress on an iron bedstead. A wooden chair, a candle stand. Freezing, dusty with neglect; the very walls closing in with a reproach.
I wedged the back of the chair under the knob. Then after a while, lay stiffly on top of the bedcovers in my street clothes and under my cloak, listening to my heart pound and the blood surge in my ears; crashes and yelps from the alley below. Cold seeped up through the floorboards.
Of all the damp gloom and dusky shades I had so far encountered, the void next to me was the most disconcerting and lonely of all. But Stephan would know, as well as I, this gaping emptiness; my lover would be feeling my absence just as I felt his. Yes, I had gambled; exchanged all that had defined me in the world—a rustic life in a distant province (where anyone who had ever been to the capital at all was called a Parisien for life)—the rutted road and antique habits of church and village, the goose pens, the obligations of a daughter—for Stephan’s kisses and his promises, murmured like silk to my neck and imprinted on every part of me, stamped into the wax of my being. Yes, I had contoured my life to his since Saint Martin’s Day last November, with not much to show for it but a promise and some borrowed finery against the January winds—but still.
“Don’t doubt me, Eugénie,” he had said. “Doubt, you know, is contagious.”
The last echo before I drifted under seemed to be the voice of my mother, Berthe, mocking behind my ear . . . You think your eggs are on the fire when only the shells are left . . . ! An old country saying, never-turn-your-back. Maman felt closer, in that instant, than Stephan, though I had left her farther behind. And in the moment of collision between what I had imagined and the clamoring consequences of my real actions came the ache of foreknowledge, like the bump on my head, and the simultaneous etherizing of it deep within.
I woke to the sound of church bells; insistent, unstopping, pulling me from the shallow marooning shoals of a dream. Dirty light filtered in through the window; a wafer of ice lay on top of the water in the pitcher. Paris. Blackened stub of wick in a pool of wax; an aching head and skirts pulle...