I am not made for these things. I am too old to feel any sort of obedience to my parents. And yet I feel myself cruel and selfish to contemplate angering and disappointing my mother by refusing the invitation presented by the Lauriers. It was for me more than it was for them, after all, and my mother enjoys these events. She rarely allows herself any pleasure, and though I do not like her, she is my mother. Even the Gorgons deserved some pleasure in their time.
And so I am here. I can dance, but I choose not to. My mother and Mme Laurier have contrived to put me in a position where the rest of the world seems to think I am to be married to Isabelle, but she and I have an understanding whereby there can be no plans until an offer comes from my lips alone. She is a very pretty blonde, but we have no great liking for each other. Anyone with half a brain could see that by our distance. She is dancing with another young gentleman, while I stand against the wall, toying with a glass of champagne, watching the others enjoy themselves. My mother has convinced my father that it would not be a mistake to dance, and indeed, they are not the only older couple on the floor. Of course, Mlle Laurier takes the chance to meet my gaze, as she always does when I hope she will not, and I attempt to smile back at her politely. This is the reason the world will be surprised when we do not marry. We watch each other across the room and invite gossip that it is a love affair rather than an arrangement we seek to avoid.
It is January, and so the sound lacks the crispness of summer silks. Velvet skirts muffle the echo of the dancers’ feet, and the dark colours draw the eye upwards to smooth, pale shoulders and overly fussy hairstyles. I was born to the wrong generation to find anything this evening worthy of the phrase ‘good taste’.
Though it is cold outside, the press of bodies creates an unbearable heat, and it is nearing the time I retreat to my usual corner. There is always a chair near the window, partially hidden by a particularly disgusting tropical plant that exists for conversation purposes. Everyone knows M. Laurier is in the China trade. His wife does not need to flaunt a living specimen from her husband’s travels in order to impress. On these occasions, however, it provides a welcome respite, next to the cold glass, where I can be present and yet let my thoughts wander to more important places without being accosted by someone who claims an acquaintance with me.
My glass is empty, though I do not remember having drained it. I look around for a waiter and accidentally catch Mlle Laurier’s eye again. How many times will I be forced through this charade tonight? At last, a saviour. I exchange my empty glass for a full one and direct my steps toward my corner. I do not go quickly, for I cannot give the appearance of escape. I am simply drawn in that direction, slowly, sipping my cool glass of champagne.
At last, I am nearly there. I take another long look at the room - my mother is now gossiping with a woman whose name I cannot recall. I do not see my father, but I do not see several of the older gentlemen as well. Perhaps they have withdrawn to smoke and discuss the state of the market. I am not welcome when the gentlemen withdraw. One dinner party was quite enough of my opinions. By choice, I do not keep my thoughts to myself even in the presence of my elders. Here, however, the young gentlemen such as myself are believed to be engaged in the important pursuit of finding a wife.
I round the potted palm only to start in surprise. My hand reaches out to the glass to steady myself. “Forgive me, mademoiselle,“ I find myself saying. “I did not know anyone was here.”
Her dark eyes are wide in surprise and surely mirror my own. “I am sorry, monsieur. Is this your seat?” Her voice is husky and slightly accented. She is not the prettiest woman in the room, but she has far more taste and elegance, which I suppose is to say that to them, she is not well dressed. Her skirt is too straight and completely unadorned. The puffs of her sleeves are too narrow and confined to the shoulder. Her dark hair has not been molded into a riot of curls around her face but has instead been left straight, pulled back softly, and formed into a simple round bun, without ornament of any sort. It is an agreeable costume, though perhaps not quite the prescribed fashion. I have not seen any woman wear her hair so simply in the evening for at least two years, and the thought makes me feel very old, indeed. I must be old if I am feeling nostalgia for past fashions.
I have lost my tongue in her presence, and she looks at me expectantly. “No, no, mademoiselle. Please forgive me for disturbing you.” I bow to her politely, in order to take my leave, and note that she attempts to conceal a very small book, just the size of her hands, but a glaring red against the dark green of her skirt. If my senses were about me, I would leave, but I am tired and bored and if I inadvertently offend her, I shall never see her again and perhaps not be given another invitation. There are no terrible consequences if I speak. “You had more foresight than I did, mademoiselle, in bringing a book.”
She colours and tries to slip the tiny volume into her reticule, but she already knows it is too late. “An invitation does not always mean one is truly welcome, and it never implies that one will actually enjoy oneself.” Her accent is English, I believe.
“It seems unlikely that anyone here has felt obligated to invite poor English relations, or indeed has poor English relations,” I tell her.
“That is perhaps true. I, however, am Irish.“ She does not seem to dislike talking to me, or else she has found great amusement that I have misidentified her accent.
I wish I could be amused by it. “I am terribly sorry,” I apologise. “What were you reading before I interrupted you?” It seems safer ground for the moment.
“You will laugh at me.” But she is smiling sheepishly.
“I promise I shall not. Nothing surprises me anymore.”
“It is a philosophical treatise.”
“Heavy reading for such a place as this.”
“It is not heavy at all, and even if it were, I should not find it so. Nothing is heavy when it concerns you intimately.”
“If it concerns you intimately, it must be important enough that I would not dream of laughing at you for reading it.”
She seems to challenge me with her eyes. “I do my best to translate the title, since the work is in English. I fear I will show how poor my command of your language truly is. A Defence of the Rights of Ladies.”
I smile, for I know what she means to say. I do not speak English well, but I do read it. “You want to say ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’. Of Mary Wollstonecraft,” I correct her in her own language.
“You know it?” she asks, so shocked that she forgets to speak French.
I am forced to continue my attempts at the English language. “I have read it many times. ‘Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace how, rather than to root them out.’ I read more easily than I speak,” I finish in apology. I can only hope she understands me.
She does, for she recognises the line, and she recommences in French, to my great relief. “It is unusual to find a gentleman who has finished it. Impossible to find one who speaks of it with respect.”
“You have not heard my reputation,” I tell her. Only then do I realise that I have not introduced myself, and perhaps she has heard my reputation after all. I smile at my own folly. “Perhaps we should start over at the beginning.” I bow to her again. “My name is Julien Combeferre.”
She nods to me, for we have edged so close in conversation that she cannot stand. “Diana McGovern, monsieur.” The harsh Englishness of her name seems to startle even her. “Diane,” she corrects herself. “Please, monsieur, you must be tired of standing. Do find a chair.”
“I had not intended on keeping you this long, mademoiselle.”
“You came to hide in the corner, and I have kept you from your chosen occupation.”
“It has been preferable to sitting alone with my thoughts.”
“As neither of us dislikes the other’s company, I beg you to go find a chair. You should not have to appear in discussion with a potted palm for another moment.” She is in earnest, and the idea is preferable to any alternative I might discover on my own.
I do as she asks, though it is not easy at this time of evening to find an unoccupied chair that I do not have to carry across the room. I divest myself of my glass of now warm champagne. Finally, I take a chair nearly out from under its occupant. She is still there, waiting patiently for my return. “Would you like a glass of wine?” I must act more like a gentleman.
“Thank you. You are very kind to the poor Irish cousin.”
I do not know what to say to that, so I simply smile and go after a waiter. I am sick of champagne, though I have only had two glasses tonight. A sweeter white wine is preferable for the thirst created by talking.
She thanks me. Suddenly I am nervous. This is hardly the time or the place to discern her life story, but it is what I want. “The desire to show intelligence is rare in a woman.” Only after they are said do I realise my words were aloud.
“It is simpler when one has given up on marriage, I should think.”
I cannot tell her meaning. “You have given up on marriage, mademoiselle?”
“It was never a very strong possibility. I have no dowry. I am not beautiful. I prefer not to try on masks as if I am not good enough. My cousins would never allow me to marry below my station, and it is doubtful anyone should want an outspoken and intelligent woman in any case. I am too willful for the convent, and yet I have not the motivation or confidence to do something as rash as to start my own school. At some point, I suppose I shall give up and enter into service as a governess, even though it will mean giving up the little freedom I have.”
She is the most beautiful woman here tonight, but I cannot tell her that. I have only just learned her name. Courfeyrac would say these things to many women, but I do not think even he would go quite so far with someone of our class. I struggle to find something more to say. After all, question and answer is not a civilised form of conversation, though it is a convenient one. “Perhaps, one day, you will find people willing to help you with that school.” It feels flat, somehow.
“Thank you. I hope that may be true.”
“What brings you to Paris, mademoiselle?” There, I have said it.
“It is a long story. Are you certain you wish to listen?”
“I have nothing but time and interest. But it is not important if you do not wish to tell it.”
“The simple version is that my cousin and her husband invited me to join them here when they married. I am here because my aunt and uncle hope I may be better able to find a husband here than in Toulouse. But your question is why am I in this country at all, is it not?”
“It is really not my concern.”
“But you wish to know, and I wish to tell you. I have heard your reputation, M. Combeferre. In 1792, in Ireland, there was a rebellion against English rule. A few Protestant landowners and some middle class city Catholics attempted to lead the Catholic peasantry against government installations. Many people were killed. My uncle - my father’s brother - was one of the leaders. He escaped to France and married a woman in Toulouse. My father was not so deeply involved, and he was able to remain in Ireland. He was a doctor in Dublin, but he lost his practice. I grew up in the country, where a landlord had invited him and my mother to work for him. We were treated well - more as guests than as servants - and I was educated with the daughters of the household. My father acted as doctor to the peasants who were tied to the land, and to the lady of the house, who was something of a hypochondriac. My father died when I was seventeen, and my mother did not wish to stay without him. We went first to Dublin, to live with her family. About a year later, she died. I was welcome to stay, but my uncle in Toulouse had already invited us to come to him when he learned of my father’s death. One does not travel when in deep mourning unless it is by necessity, however, and so I stayed until I could travel. I have been in this country for three years at this point. My cousin was married in November, and we have just taken residence in Paris. I suppose I am a Wild Goose, even if it is twenty-five years after the shots that caused us to fly off. But what brings you to Paris?” she asks me quickly, changing the subject. “I am told that it is to create trouble, but you hardly seem the sort to engage in light pursuits.”
“Creating trouble is far from a light pursuit. To be precise, I am in Paris for purposes of education. My own and everyone else’s.” Dear god, did I say that? I feel as if I have been drinking. My head is swimming. And still I keep talking. “This nation will never be what it should be as long as the people are ignorant and ignored. Even Robespierre could not be counted on, so someone has to take matters into his own hands.” I sound like Courfeyrac. Dear lord, I sound like Courfeyrac talking to a girl. I am flirting, disgusting as that sounds. There is no other word for what I am doing. “A republic cannot function unless the people have a certain amount of education. Therefore, the people must be taught that the injustice they experience is not a permanent state. And that is why I am in Paris. If the capital rebels, the republic has a better chance than if Marseille rebels.” There, that is better. “That is where I come from, Marseille, though I have always gone to school in Paris. My father, for business reasons, divides his time between the capital and the Mediterranean, and my mother chooses to follow his peregrinations for social purposes. And so I grew up dragged between a city I was not allowed to see and a house that for many years was too far from town for Marseille itself to have any claims on me.” Or perhaps it is not better, for I am rambling.
She does not seem to mind. “What is it that you study, monsieur? I am told you are still a student.”
“I started with law, moved to medicine, and currently am engaged in a systematic study of languages. I cannot marry until I am set in life, and I will not be set in life until I have received a degree in something, therefore I prefer not to finish a degree in anything at the moment. And indeed, I find that I prefer study above all other things. I am not yet ready to leave academia unless it is to establish justice. I will not abandon my pleasures only to take on the task of furthering economic injustices by working for my father, as I am expected to do.”
“I wish I could have gone to university. Even if I had been born a man, I would not have had the money for it. My father left nothing when he died.”
I do not know what to say, and before I have time to think, I see that I have taken her hand.
She looks up and smiles at me. She starts to speak, but something stops her. She sees someone, and so I turn around.
“So this is why you have not hidden so far in the corner tonight, M. Combeferre.” Of all people, it must be Isabelle Laurier. “My mother wishes we would dance, and it will not kill either of us to let her believe we are glad to comply.”
I stand, and so does Mlle McGovern. She is much taller than I expected, at least as tall as Feuilly. “Please forgive me, mademoiselle,” I say to Isabelle. “I should introduce you, I think. Mlle Isabelle Laurier -”
She cuts me off. “It is not necessary.” I know she has been looking over Mlle McGovern, and it is evident she does not like what she sees.
Diane is ashamed, I can tell, though she tries not to show it. I bow to her again and kiss her hand. “It has been a pleasure speaking with you, mademoiselle. I shall not be long, if you care to wait.”
She shakes her head. “It is getting late, and I think my cousin will be leaving soon.”
“Then I must hope to see you again.” I know Isabelle is impatient, but she must wait. “I do mean it, mademoiselle. I do not engage in trivialities.”
She smiles, and I know she understands I am in earnest. “Then I hope we meet again, M. Combeferre.”
Isabelle nearly drags me from her, and I know she is angry. I refuse to begin a quarrel. It is not worth quarreling about.
“Really, if you must make a production of avoiding me, could you at least exhibit better taste?”
“I do not know what you are talking about.” I am determined to stay calm.
“The plainest, oldest, worst-dressed woman in the room. That is what I am talking about.“
“She is not so much older than you, I believe, if you must bring age into this. At least she does not try to be someone she is not, as you encourage me to do at the moment.” I am glad that the dance breaks us apart at this instance, for it means a slight respite.
We rejoin, and Isabelle will not let go. “Her hair and that dress are both at least ten years out of date. Entertaining impoverished country cousins is your new cause, monsieur?” She mocks me, but it is hardly the first time, and I know it shall be far from the last.
“If that is how you wish to see it, I cannot change your thinking. She is an intelligent woman, charming in her person and manner, and completely without falsity. She is many things you are not, and it is pleasant to spend time with her.”
“You would marry that thing, then?”
“Why not? If she would condescend to have me, I should be far more pleased with the institution than if we found ourselves promised to each other.”
“Everyone is right when they say you have no sense.”
“Then let them, and you, think themselves correct and superior. Why should I care what others think of me?”
“How can you not care? How can you be so flippant about your future?”
“My future is not your future nor is it their future. I take my own path, and if it crosses theirs, then it does, but that does not mean they have to follow me. I know what I want, and I know what I do, and I know the consequences of my actions. I am not a fool. And if having a conversation with Mlle McGovern has consequences, then I am willing to accept them. They cannot be as difficult as the potential consequences of my other pursuits.”
“You are impossible.”
“Then you must be glad you are not betrothed to me except in public opinion, which is as changeable as the winds.“
She refuses to reply - I can tell by the set of her jaw - and I am blessed with silence for the rest of the dance. I see Diane leave. She smiles at me as she goes, and I return the gesture. Perhaps she is not the most conventionally beautiful woman in the room, but her name suits her. She is the huntress, and I am willing to believe her Apollo’s sister. The dance ends, and I am allowed to leave.
I walk home, watching the thick white clouds of my breath in the icy air, my mind on forests and deer and a woman with a silver bow who deigns to speak to a mortal like me.
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