The Keeper of All Mystery

Joly: Paris, 1826

Paris was not Toulouse, and Thomas thanked God for it. But neither was Paris Bordeaux. Toulouse had been too insular, the girls chattering away in their own dialect, laughing at the Bordelais and their strange tongue, though the Occitan was not so different to the Bordelais, really. But Paris, like Bordeaux, was composed of men and women from all over Europe, and a man with an accent stood out less than a man who sounded native.

Paris had other benefits, too. Thomas had been attached to the law faculty at Toulouse, a doubtful experiment when begun and an abject failure when ended. While it had been a good idea that one of the sons should become a lawyer, Thomas, like his elder brother Philippe, had not had the temperament for it. They had inquisitive enough minds, but both had a scientific bent. Philippe had returned home after less than a year and gone to work for their uncle Barton, but Thomas felt he must make a stronger try. He stuck it out to fail his first-year examinations twice, the second time perhaps because he gave up his afternoons to every lecture offered by the faculty of sciences. Legal statutes had a tendency to fragment, portions flying out of his brain entirely, but medical terms, the parts of the body and the most interesting diseases that professors attempted to direct at the advanced students in the lecture hall, had the same staying power as the organization of the animal and vegetable kingdoms into orders and species.

There were six children in the house in the cours du Chapeau Rouge. Opinions differed as to whether that was too high a number: Thomas would have said it was just enough, a perfect match of three boys and three girls, but M. Joly had to finance three dowries and set up three sons out of a single wine export firm. Thomas might go to Paris after his failure in Toulouse, but only if he would put his nose to the grindstone and study hard for a profession. To do less would be to take more than his share of the family resources.

He did not feel directly out of place in Paris, as there was too great a variety of people for any one person to stand out, but he did feel unprepared among the student population. Bordeaux was a workaday town, and his dull coats and practical trousers left him feeling countrified and out of place among so many of the older students. One could tell at a glance which students required a profession and which students were permitted to study for one. A quick letter home left no doubt in M. Joly’s mind that Paris had not changed at all from his youth - one must still cut a dash or be seen as provincial, it appeared, and he well-remembered the feeling of going to a tailor to have a bright blue coat with very wide lapels. “One new coat and two waistcoats ought to set up you up well enough,” he wrote back, sending enough money that Thomas was also able to buy himself a silver-headed cane. He could at least look like a Parisian now, so long as he did not open his mouth, or at the very least like a man of property. He needed every possible advantage, he was sure, for how could anyone take a skinny, ginger student seriously? Particularly as he was starting all over, having failed at his studies before.

After the first month or so, Thomas could present himself as well as could be expected. But on the whole, Paris threatened failure for rather different reasons than Toulouse. Strangely, it was too quiet. Thomas easily enough grew friendly with the men who shared his corpse that first winter, and they were far better companions than his friends from the collège royal who had accompanied him to Toulouse, but a single room shared with no one, and the dinner table shared with grasping clerks, were hardly comparable to family life. Six children had made for a boisterous household, and when Thomas had left for Toulouse, all the children had still been at home. Even upon his return, with Philippe decamped for permanent residence at the Château Langoa and Marguerite preparing for her wedding, four children would still make a noisy dinner table. Indeed, Thomas had been the quiet one of the family for much of his life, the pale, thin, ginger one among otherwise dark and sturdy Bordelais and Basque and Irish stock. But while men told tales of rowdy students, he had always managed to find himself in quiet, if not serious, garnis.

“I don’t see why you cannot come out with us,” Magny argued a bare month into their acquaintance, ignoring the half-flayed arm before him for more important matters.

“I’ll end up locked out.”

“You, my good man, need a better place to live,” Fromme insisted, pointing with his scalpel.

“And can a man really change lodgings before the end of the quarter?”

“You’re good and stuck until the new year,” Magny was forced to admit. “Too bad - we’re headed to the Chaumière on Sunday night.”

“What’s so exciting about the Chaumière?”

“Best girls in Paris,” Picot told him. “Chap at my lodgings says so.”

“Perhaps I can catch you up another time.” But Thomas was not sorry to have an excuse to turn down the invitation. The girls in Toulouse had been bad enough with their giggling every time he opened his mouth. The maids back home had been bad enough, too, in their way, often in country superstition blaming him as a malevolent spirit when they sought to give notice because one of the other children had managed to climb up to the roof and pour water down the chimney on the bonne’s afternoon out. Thomas did not need Parisian girls to laugh at his Bordeaux accent and red hair, even if they might be sophisticated enough to have set aside ridiculous provincial stories.

Yet he had no other occupations of an evening. His friends from school had taken to cards and women from their arrival in Toulouse, even as the women laughed at them. They called it flirtatious, but Thomas was certain he knew better. One café permitted them to use the billiard table, and he alone found more pleasure in the table than in the girl behind the zinc counter. The table could be mastered, all the faults his own and able to be smoothed out with practice, while the girl permitted only the vaguest familiarities, the faults either in her or uncorrectable in himself. At least Paris provided other amusements of an evening when one was able to set aside the books: there were botanical and zoological lectures at the Jardin des Plantes, more elaborate chemical experiments at the faculty of sciences than he had ever seen in Toulouse, and if one managed one’s time well, a Sunday afternoon at the zoological gardens could be had, all for nothing. The only occupations in Toulouse had been gaming and women and one theatre; Paris had enough science to satisfy him as well as plenty of theatres. If one wanted women, one could much more easily see the ballet girls in appreciative peace in any of one of the eleven theatres of Paris. The low décolletage and the short skirts provided a far better view of womanly charms for far less money, all things considered, than attempting to seduce a girl at a dance hall. Particularly when one was a skinny, ginger-haired Bordelais, Thomas was certain.

But Magny in particular continued to harangue him to change his lodgings, and as the new year began, Thomas found himself installed in another garni, around the corner from Magny. “I thought my neighbour might be leaving,” he apologised, “but it seems he managed to pay the next quarter after all. This will do you just as well, though.” The new lodgings cost an extra five francs a month, a full sixty francs a year more, but Thomas justified the expense in the need to have his own key, particularly if he were to get an externat the following year. “It would be easiest to remain in one place, convenient to the major hospital, for the entire four years, would it not?” he wrote. M. Joly did not increase Thomas’ allowance, but he did accept the change of address.

Fromme had a dinner ticket for the place, though he maintained what he called a private apartment, so that Thomas’ time was no longer much his own. The corner café was Magny and Fromme’s usual haunt, and Picot often descended on it rather than on his local. Sharing a dinner table every night with Fromme, and a local café with the lot, meant that Thomas no longer had an excuse the next time they dared venture to the Chaumière.

“You must come. It hardly costs a thing, and the girls are willing. And pretty,” Picot added, more as an afterthought.

Thomas had very low expectations as he allowed them to drag him through the gates. A dusting of snow lay on the ground of the pleasure garden, though the paths had been swept. The bare trees glittered in the lantern light, but at least the dance hall itself was fully enclosed, brightly lit, and looked warm in the winter landscape. He would have no entertainment, he felt sure, but at least he would be warm.

The hall appeared to be crowded with all the most imperious café girls in Paris. Dark and fair, they all seemed to look him up and down then turn away, unimpressed by this latest arrival. Thomas knew better than to delude himself - his mother might suggest his hair had at last darkened to brown, but it was merely less violently red than it had been in his childhood. He would always be pale, and the combination of pallor and his thin frame had been the cause of many visits by the doctors in his youth, many days spent in bed on the top floor of the house in the cours du Chapeau Rouge, watching what might happen in the windows across the way. All his vitality had gone into his height, the doctors had suggested, and he had never filled out properly. The prettiest girls were all with substantial men, men who were no more handsome than he but were, he understood, the picture of health. But no one had yet laughed at him, as if he were not even important enough for that much attention, and unlike in Toulouse, he could perhaps spend an evening nursing several drinks and watching the more appropriate couples pair off and break up, the girls’ shoulders beautifully white in the candlelit room.

“Go on, do what you want,” Thomas insisted to his friends. “You’ve got the hang of the place already. Just let me watch for a bit. It’s all I want, I swear.”

Too nervous to do anything else, watching was a comfort. Thomas could drink and take in the haze, the colours, the smell of liquor and bodies and perfume, and try not to think of how much he did not belong. As an observer, he did not have to belong. His friends had quickly found girls for themselves - Fromme was even now on the dance floor, his arm around a brunette who, while hardly the prettiest girl in the room, was far better dressed and coiffed than any girl Thomas had seen in Toulouse - and he could watch them with true enjoyment. He stood back and fiddled idly with his cane, content that he had not yet made the evening a disaster. It was the most he dared hope for.

Yet soon enough, a girl had come up to him. A very pretty blonde girl, far prettier than Fromme’s brunette, and the look in her bright eyes had none of the mockery he expected.

“Do you dance, monsieur?”

“Are you asking me to dance?” he asked in confusion. It was certainly backwards, wasn’t it, that the girls do the asking? Paris was not at all like Toulouse.

“Yes.” She took him by the hand and he had no choice but to take her out onto the dance floor. “You can call me Céleste.”

“Thomas.” It was hard to pronounce words in her presence - he was so certain that he would make a fool of himself.

“Pleasure to meet you.”

The dance was of a sort he had not seen before - they danced differently in Paris, or at least the young and poor did, than did the bourgeois of Bordeaux. He followed as best he could, but he feared he was making a terrible spectacle of himself. He spent much of his time looking at his feet, trying to avoid stepping on Céleste’s dainty blue shoes. His lessons had not prepared him for this sort of dancing in this sort of crowd. Céleste laughed at him, her blonde curls shaking, but he did not mind for once. The humour in her seemed to be natural rather than at his expense, as if she would laugh at anything, even the most handsome man in the room dancing with all style and grace. He had never noticed girls like this.

At least he had the presence of mind to offer to buy her something to drink, and she had the delightful audacity to ask for champagne. It was a thoroughly inferior vintage, probably some fifth pressing for local consumption he was surprised had even been shipped to Paris, but he did not mind when examining her bright eyes over the rim of the glass as they chatted of the weather and his friends and how he found the Chaumière.

“I suppose you must be a seamstress?” Thomas dared ask as he feared, having exhausted what he could think to say further about his friends, his end of the conversation was flagging.

“Who isn’t? Paris goes through a great many shirts and handkerchiefs.” She laughed again - it seemed she was always laughing. “I do embroidery on ladies’ gowns,” she added. It suited her better, Thomas thought, the idea of bright colours rather than the stale pallor of linen.

“I came here as a maid, if you can believe it,” she went on. “I suppose you were horrid to your servants.” But it was a flirtatious tease, not an accusation, and Thomas felt more eager than defensive.

“I tried to be perfectly nice,” he insisted, “but with six of us children, we never could keep staff long.”

“Six! I should have hated you all! All boys, I suppose, too.”

“Only three. But my sisters were no better.” Indeed, Lili was the best climber of the six and took every opportunity to show away, even now that she had reached the age of fourteen.

Céleste seemed to enjoy hearing of his family because she asked, “And do your brothers look like you?”

“Not at all,” Thomas was forced to admit. His brothers were darker and far more handsome, he was sure.

Céleste turned out to have two older brothers. “They spend all of their time arguing over the land, and I wasn’t to have any portion to marry on, so can you blame me for getting out there?” She went on for a bit in this vein - her family, it seemed, were not so nice as Thomas’. But it had been only a short relief to her to come to Paris. “Why should I scrub and scrape my life away and have nothing to show for it but a baby? I speak of what might have been, not what is,” she added reassuringly. “If I’m to have a man’s hands all over me, I should like to have liberty to choose the man. And you have very nice hands.” She giggled as Thomas flushed at the compliment.

“Shall we have another dance?” Thomas dared ask. It seemed it would be easier than continuing the conversation, particularly if she did indeed think he had nice hands. But even after a second dance, which he performed no better than the first but with rather more joy, she stood by him all the evening, chatting about the Chaumière and her friends, a bit more about the medical school and his friends.

Thomas cared more for her bright eyes and the lovely sound of her voice than for the actual subject of her conversation, and he was fairly certain she cared nothing for what he could say of the medical school. The idea that she liked him was perhaps more intoxicating than the bitter champagne. When at last she left to rejoin her friends, a giggling flock of terribly pretty girls, he felt very lightheaded indeed.

Picot slapped him on the shoulder on their way out, congratulating him on his conquest. “Prettiest girl in the hall, damn you.”

Céleste was not the prettiest girl in the hall, Thomas tried to argue, but she was very pretty, indeed, and more than that, she was as bubbly as the champagne she had so enjoyed. Her voice carried over the din of the hall the way the foam would carry over the edge of the glass.

Thomas met her several more times at the Chaumière - indeed, he kept going to the Chaumière precisely in order to meet her. His dancing never improved, but how could it when he would rather keep his eyes on Céleste rather than the movements of the more accomplished dancers? It was best on the rare occasions, perhaps only twice in an evening, when the band would play a waltz, and he could take her in his arms and twirl her around the room, he and she perfectly in step and made only for each other.

It was after a waltz that she asked if he would walk her home. As a gentleman, of course he agreed, though his heart was racing, not at all knowing what she might want. The spring night was chill, though the sharpness of winter had gone. She kept her shawl pulled tight around her shoulders even as she leaned close to Thomas. He could not feel her warmth through his coat, but he felt the delightful pressure of her bosom against his arm.

Céleste lived on the fifth floor, the very top, of a house not far from his own lodgings, a small garret with a bed, a chair, and a table, and a sloping roof. Thomas thought to bid her goodnight, but she kissed him full on the lips instead.

This was where the novels skipped to a new chapter, he thought. He knew his anatomy, but his thoughts were not at all of the physical logistics. Instead, he shut the door and pulled her down onto her bed, conscious of nothing but the feel of her lips, the tug of her fingers on his cravat, the sudden loosening of her thick blonde hair so that, before he even realised he was nearly naked, he was buried in a glorious flood of gold.

Céleste had ideas that Thomas only later learned were perhaps not quite the done thing. She preferred to lower herself onto his cock, her firm little breasts bouncing in delight to a background of her golden hair. She could pull him up to where they were both sitting, with him still buried inside her, to caress and kiss and feel as much flesh against flesh as was possible. The only thing she would not do was lay on her own back and let him push into her. It was rather like living in that dirty pamphlet his friend Macard had once brought to school and been soundly beaten over by both the headmaster and his father for such audacity. Thomas had not understood the dirty pamphlet then, and he considered it now a shameful thing, a poor replacement for the actual touch of flesh, the burning in the brain that accompanied the rising cock, the sight of a beautiful girl naked and taking you places not even the pamphlet could explain.

When at last he came, with a shudder that he thought must be his spirit leaving his worn out body, expelled with his seed, he felt limp all over. Céleste lay across him for a moment, flesh to flesh, a delightful feeling but one he could not sustain in his fatigue. It was an effort to him to stroke her hair, her soft, beautiful hair.

“I like redheads,” she told him softly, almost in the tone of a child admitting someone else’s secret. “You’re all so bright, so much excitement and energy that some of it must come out through your hair. You’re always so brilliant in bed.”

Thomas flushed darkly. He would never dare explain to her that she was the first, that he had merely followed the enticing lead she set, just as he had done ever since they had met. And he knew, from her tone, that she was praising him, that he was not the exception to her rule. He knew she must feel the increasing heat, and he could only escape rather than endure explanations.

Escape was her intent as well, however, it seemed, which was more chilling to him than the damp March night. “Do be a dear and let yourself out. You’ve simply exhausted me.” He dressed quickly, uncertain if he should be upset at being asked to leave or relieved that he could make his escape. “I will see you again, won’t I?” she asked.

“Of course.” He kissed her good night, his lips catching at hers, lengthening a peck into a slow caress. Decending the stairs, he barely noticed the gentleman in the tall hat he passed on the fourth-floor landing.

His breath hung in the thick air on the midnight walk back to his lodgings, but the only thing Thomas noticed was the rush of thought. When might he see her again? Paris was not at all like Toulouse, nor was it like Bordeaux. It was so much better than anything he had yet experienced. What did past failures matter in a place where something could, indeed, go right at last? He could make a go of this venture after all.


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