Bal Musette

When the guns started, Marie began to worry. But there was nothing she could do, so she sat beside her filth window and watched the embroidery bloom from her needle all through the drizzly day. When the guns stopped in the night, she thought, “They will come when they can.”

But the guns woke her at dawn, and she chided herself for thinking it would be so easy. Thomas and Martin would laugh at her if she ever told them she had been so silly. So she sat sewing as the light strengthened and the guns went on. They would come when it was over.

The guns stopped some time after noon, replaced by the normal ringing of church bells, strangely loud in the silent city. Marie watched out the window as the brave and curious began to stir, the shop across the street carefully opening a single shutter. She put on her bonnet and took the narrow stairs with care, telling herself she could not possibly meet them so soon but eager to be out in the street nevertheless.

The streets were strangely empty and yellow in the lengthening day. She stopped a gentleman she knew by sight. “What has happened, monsieur?”

“The revolt is over. Revolt - more like a riot, it was so small.”

She thanked him and started in the direction of their usual café but quickly found herself standing in the middle of the street. She had never stood in the middle of a Paris street, unmoving, unmoved, as quiet as the streets at home. Sense was beginning to return. If they had lost, there would be arrests, hiding, government reprisals. There would be no use in going to the usual café because only the police would be there. She would go home and wait. They would come when they could.

A week passed, and Marie heard of arrests and shootings whenever she went to the market. Another week, and the news was little better when she took her work to the boss. But they were hiding, and she may have been known to the police, and she would be patient. A third week, and still they did not come. They did not even send a message in the mouth of a gamin or a note on a torn and filthy scrap of paper. Perhaps they were not together - but then would not two messages have come? Now she could permit herself to worry - one of them surely would have found a way to say something to her if he was free, even if he was in hiding.

She asked the grocer if he had any old newspapers, but their names were not in any that she could discover. She did not dare go down to the Hôtel de Ville and make herself known - some women had been arrested along with their men, and what good could she do them if she were taken as a conspirator as well?

She finally went to the house where they had shared a flat, two small rooms on the third floor. The concierge had let her in before, thinking she belonged only to the renter and not to the friend, and no one bothered to correct that belief. The door was unlocked, and thinking she could make her way alone, Marie stepped across the threshold unbidden. On the first creaky stair, however, the concierge appeared.

“He ain’t here.”

“When will he return?”

“Might be never. I ain’t seen either of them since the morning the guns started. Lord, that was awful.”

“And the police?” If they had been arrested, the police would have already searched their rooms and there would be nothing for her to find.

“No police. At the end of the month, I’m clearing them out.”

Marie struggled to stay calm. “May I see if they left a note for me?”

“Take your time.” The concierge unlocked the door and turned back down the stairs.

The room was hot and stale, and Marie swore she heard a rat among the papers. Dust lay over everything, as if cleaning were a privilege paid in tips, not a right purchased in the weekly rent. She opened all the windows, letting in the rest of the hot summer city, and settled in to the task of picking through their lives.

First the papers. She was no great shakes at Thomas’ handwriting, but at least the humps of the M and two proud Ts would always stand out. Martin had spent years earning bits of money here and there as a copyist and had the beautifully clear handwriting necessary for the work. Of course there were piles of paper in this flat of students, some sheets even folded and stuck into Thomas’ book of flayed skeletons, but none with her name.

The bedroom, with its big bed and small mattress on the floor, was neater but devoid of any paper at all. The wardrobe still held extra linen, wool blankets, heavy overcoats. At the back of one of the shelves, she found a box where a broken watch chain, a few dry rose petals, a green button, and a rock slid about under a miniature of a woman with brown hair and frog-like eyes whom she knew to be Martin’s mother. He would never have left it at the back of the wardrobe if he were free, and the police would have taken all the paper.

She fell to the bed, sobbing, and curled around the pillow and the miniature, her only touchstones as the truth overwhelmed her. They were dead.

Surviving the cholera had been - still was - a miracle. Surviving a bitter winter, the three of them curled together in one bed, had been lucky. Despite what Martin always believed about his own luck, Paris had thrown her worst at him, and he always survived. How could her boys have died in what did not even amount to a revolt?

Two years ago, Thomas had come home to her after the three days of shooting. Martin had been waiting in the flat. She had listened to their excitement and made love to them both, together, in this bed. And then politics returned, driving out the excitement and leaving bitterness behind.

Marie thought of Thomas, pale and gingery, his long fingers accustomed to slicing apart the dead, and wondered if his fellows had already reduced him to pieces. She thought of Martin, his unlined face in contrast to the ever heightening forehead that would never now meet the bald spot that had seemed a sacrilegious tonsure, his brilliant smile, and feared she would never see his like again. If they were gone, and no one had come, they they were all gone - so many students who had done nothing but act out a belief in a better world - and she was alone.

She had been alone in Paris before, and Thomas was hardly the first to return her attentions with real affection, not even the first to part from her by death rather than boredom, but she had not wept so much for a dead boy whom she did not love since Paul.

Paul took her from the overcrowded house, the bed crowded with arms and legs from children as numerous as the box of puppies when the sheepdog gave birth, and brought her to the overcrowded city. She had pretended to love him only so he might take her - the first of many men she had pretended to love. He laboured at the construction sites all day while she attached sleeves to shirts, and at night, they lay together as they felt they ought but without love or comfort on either side. When he became ill, she nursed him and felt it pleasant to hear him say “I love you”, though both knew it was nothing more than a turn of phrase. When he died and was buried in a pauper’s grave, she wept real tears, for Paul had been kind, and felt the vastness of Paris close in around her, suffocating her in her loneliness.

One of the girls noticed her red eyes the next time they delivered their goods to the shop and took her to a café, and Marie soon saw that the best attachments were temporary. She had tired of Paul before he had even conceived of leaving their village. She had known and tired of many men before she met Thomas, while others had tired of her, and she knew it was for the best. But somehow, she passed four years with him and Martin - and others, to break the monotony and because Martin could not keep her in handkerchiefs, let alone anything else - but she had not become bored as she had when juggling lovers in the past. She thought again of the three of them in bed together and wept afresh. Perhaps it was that, Thomas-Martin, the pretty eagle, she mourned so bitterly.

But soon, her sense got the better of her emotions. She dried her eyes with a handkerchief that must have belonged to Thomas and began to search for souvenirs. The concierge would surely look around before selling everything off or sending it all to Thomas’ father, and she had far less claim to anything than Marie did. The skeleton book she would not keep - she still did not know how Thomas did not get nightmares from it - but she did take two banknotes she found between its pages. She pocketed the portrait of Martin’s mother, a few stray francs, and Thomas’ casebook, in which one of his friends had sketched a picture of her on a page otherwise covered in crude drawings of flayed limbs.

“They are dead,” she announced to the concierge with all the hardness she could muster. “If you have any means of communicating with M. Joly’s family, I suggest you use them. I have none. M. Lègle has an uncle still living, I believe, but I do not know where.”


“They haven’t been back since the revolt. The police have not come. All their things are still here. What else could have happened?” She was near tears again and fled rather than weep before the old woman. She was kind enough, but Marie had her pride.

She finished trousers for a week, kept company by the miniature of Martin’s mother, and tried not to cry as July came on hot and everyone started to long for the country. The soldiers finally left and the newspapers turned to other news. Marie went about this strange, celibate, honest interlude of mourning just as she had done for Paul.

Then the boredom and the heat became untenable, and when she dropped off the finished trousers and was told there was no more work, come back next week, she flounced off with her friend Phémie and asked if anyone was still in Paris these days. So many people had left the city due to the cholera that it was depressing to consider how much worse the usual summer social drought must be. Her boys had left the world at a very inconvenient time. But Phémie said the less fashionable artistic cafés were not wholly empty yet, so to one of those they went that night.

It was dark and smoky and terribly hot and noisy. The sun had not yet set on the long summer day, but none of the yellow rays penetrated the café. The patrons and a band competed in volume, neither group wholly successful, but there were more men than women and no couples in the open space before the bandstand. It was entirely possible that no one in the room could afford the dance tokens.

Phémie settled into the lap of a pale young man who was critiquing the band to his sparsely bearded companion. Both were drinking water - the summer drought was here in earnest.

Marie took the pale young man to be Phémie’s regular lover, a musician called Alexandre. They settled in to kissing each other before Phémie realised she perhaps ought to introduce her friend. Pointing - and only Phémie could point to everyone and seem charming rather than in breach of etiquette - she announced, “Alexandre Schaunard, Gustave Colline, Musichetta Rabais. Talk!” And she went back to kissing her musician as the band drowned out the most timid attempts at conversation.

Gustave moved closer to her. “I’m sorry, what was your name?” She repeated it. “Musetta?” Marie smiled. Close enough - no one since Paul had used her real name, in any case, so what did it matter if her sobriquet were mangled? “So you’re musical?”

“I sing. A little. Doesn’t everyone?”

She tried to keep up a flirtatious banter with the bear-like Gustave, but her heart was not really in it, and neither was his. He kept watching Phémie - or perhaps Alexandre, it was rather hard to tell - with the look of a broken heart. At last, he took her aside, and in the relative peace of the streets of the Latin Quarter, devoid of students, as the sun turned everything red as it finally set, she spilled out recollections of Martin. How she had only met him because of Thomas, how the only thing he had ever bought her was a single lace handkerchief, how she hated old bald men but had loved to caress his bald spot. How he had died in the revolt and no one had told her. And she was grateful that Gustave had big hands, like Martin, and could not find a handkerchief, like Martin, and spoke of death and life as an Epicurean.

They had only one life, and so did she, and they gave theirs so that future lives might be better when they could instead have spent their lives in bettering themselves alone. And she was proud of them in that moment, even as she tried to stop crying because it would have ill-repaid Gustave’s kindness if she did not seem to take comfort from his words. She let him walk her home, and the next night, when she went to the same café, he was there. Another friend joined them soon after her arrival.

This friend, unlike Gustave, unlike her boys, was handsome, with fair, curly hair the same colour as hers and brilliant, laughing blue eyes. “Marcel, you made it!”

“No thanks to the Pharaoh. But, look what I do have.” He jingled a handful of coins in Gustave’s face. “The Medici bought another painting off me.”

“Waiter, bring us wine!” Gustave bellowed. Phémie and Alexandre joined them at the sound of the word “wine”.

“I haven’t seen you before,” Marcel told Marie.

“She’s Phémie’s friend,” Gustave informed him. “Called Musetta.”

“Musetta.” He kissed her hand with a flourish. “You are of a musical temperament, then?”

“I should think so,” she flirted back. “And no one has asked me to dance - you’d think no one in the whole place can afford a token!”

His blue eyes flashed and a crooked grin lit his face. “A dance it shall be, then.”

She had not danced often with Thomas or Martin - Thomas was perfunctory at best, while Martin could not achieve even that level of competence. Marcel, however, was simply divine. If one looked past the state of his coat, and boots, and hat, and - “Is that paint all over your fingers?”

He stopped, looked, blanched, and tried to apologise. “Sorry. I thought I had - it’s dry, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s perfectly dry. You’re an artist.”

“I am.”

“I used to know an artist, a little. A friend of a friend.” He, too, had been more handsome than her boys, but terribly poor and painfully shy - the sort of boy who might have been a very nice husband but you ran away from home to avoid marrying. “He was hardly so dashing as you.”

“Did he ever ask you to sit for him?”

“He wouldn’t have had the nerve.”

“But would you sit for me?” he asked, with all the insinuations plain as day in his voice.

And she thought, why not? Nothing was going to happen for months, so she may as well try something new, grab onto this chance for excitement, because there was always still the cholera and she might be dead tomorrow. “I only sit for men of talent.”

“How can I prove myself worthy? Come to my studio?”



“So you can hide your childish scrawl in the fading light?” she teased, her heart in her throat for fear he would not take the bait. His brilliant crooked grin showed her that she had been right, that he had the egotism she expected from such a dancer.

“Tomorrow at noon? You can examine everything in the brightest possible light.”

“I will come.”

They stayed at the café late into the night, later than Marcel’s five francs lasted them, and when they went home sober but cheerful, Marie did not fall asleep in tears. She put away the portrait of Mme Lègle and Thomas’ casebook. They were souvenirs, not totems.

When she found herself naked in Marcel’s garret room, posing as an odalisque as he sketched her in charcoal, she reminded herself that she had only one life. Life was what you made of it, and if you wanted it to be always a grand ball, then you had no choice but to change partners as the music directed. And here, as Marcel talked about remaking French art, she might put forward something better for the future, as her boys had tried to do. She might leave her own souvenir.


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