The décor was rather out of date, but the room was large and the chandelier impressive. The heavy drapes were closed against drafts from the french windows, and the press of people rendered the ballroom nearly airless, the candles sapping much of what was left.
Olivie entered on her father’s arm, looking around cooly. She did not know anyone, not really. A few names and faces, but she had been educated properly at home, and without a mother, she had ceased visting properly. The only people she could be said to know were a few of her father’s patients. But she agreed that the who mess had to be done. She could not resign herself to a life of spinsterhood without at least making an attempt at the contrary. Her father was too much a philosophe to have raised her to believe in the convent as a third choice.
Her official coming out had not been a total disaster, but she had taken no pleasure in it. She continued to feel acutely out of place: her striking appearance incited jealousy, while her inexperience with female conversation made her seem aloof. And yet she continued, even when she did not like it, because she had nothing else to do. She did not have to marry, but she acknowledged that it would be a very lonely life, indeed, if she did not. Her mother had practically run off with Denis Enjolras, leaving behind her family and even her country in order to follow her heart. But Olivie was quite certain that love of that sort could not be found in the appropriate drawing rooms and lavish balls with which Toulon entertained itself. Still, here she was, determined to make a proper go of it.
As she and her father were announced, all eyes turned to them. She was the only true blonde native to Toulon, and that in itself would have been a cause of jealousy. It did not help that her features made her an Athena -- she had a little too much of the German in her to be a Venus. She was universally disliked by the women, and she knew it well, but she returned their emotion with equal force. They were all vacant, simpering hussies, desperate for a man because they were incapable of taking care of themselves. Olivie had a substantial dowry, as did they all, but more importantly, she was the only child of a very wealthy man who was getting on in years. Denis’ marriage to Vespasie Meunier was not a youthful folly but the act of a man who feared life had passed him by. There were more than fifteen years between them, and Vespasie had not been a girl, so the Enjolras fortune was perhaps very close to hand. The young men were fully aware of everything they could gain with such a girl as a wife, but Olivie had not proved entirely willing. She was intelligent and proud, and if she was to have suitors, she would engage them as she saw fit. More than one had been taken aback by her profession of an opinion on politics or her knowledge of his living. She had offended the mayor’s son with reports of ill-treatment of dock workers. One could never marry such a woman. But to dance with her did illuminate him in the reflected light of that real diamond necklace. The only paste in the Enjolras house held the paper to the walls.
Olivie had, because she was rejected by the girls of her own age, already passed into the realm of the older married women. They disapproved of her in general, but she always seemed to know when the ships from India arrived even before their husbands did, and if she spent enough time with them, she would certainly seem far less attractive in the eyes of the eligible gentlemen. No one felt motherly towards her: she had been born in Toulon, but she was still a stranger, a product of her Swiss mother, not her provençal father. But it was to this group she naturally drifted, because at least she could bear a few moments of their company. She had news of a shipment of Baltic amber, and it did make the evening go easier, once she proved yet again that she was toulonaise at bottom.
The New Year meant that an expanded menu of ladies and gentlemen had been provided by visiting families. Indeed, unlike the last ball, Olivie was called away to dance rather early, by a remarkably young (yet in other ways, extremely ordinary) stranger.
“You can hardly be in the market for a wife, M. Joly,” Olivie pressed.
“Would you prefer a courtship of a month? I’ve only a year left at the Sorbonne, more or less.”
“That is all well and good, but how can a man be set for life immediately upon receiving a diploma?”
“There is family money, as you understand quite well yourself, Mlle Enjolras.”
“Touché. Do you fence, monsieur?”
The dance broke, but he replied when they next met. “I learned a bit at school. I do not keep it up. But yes, I take your meaning.”
“I meant no meaning, simply to ask that you understood my reply. What is it that you study?”
“I consider myself something of a philologist.”
“Have you come here to find a wife or to search for traces of Languedoc and Provençal in our speech? I daresay you will find them, but you had better head to the country and listen to the peasant dialect. It is incomprehensible to a speaker of French.”
“You have studied philology, mademoiselle?”
“I have studied a bit of everything. Does it offend you?”
“Not at all. I shall easily refrain from boring you to tears.”
“Do not think so well of yourself yet, monsieur. I am not easily amused. In fact, I am generally quite bored, and this dance has done nothing to stimulate me.”
“Studied boredom is very Parisian.”
“It may be, but mine is as pure as anything. I needn’t cultivate boredom when it is all I ever feel in these situations.”
“What would you rather do?”
“My father has procured a spanish lynx, and I would have preferred to be dissecting it this afternoon, but I had to prepare for this instead.”
“You look very beautiful.”
“I should hope so, after all the hours spent. What a hideous notion, that one should fall in love at a ball, but only after the marriage be treated to the sight of one’s wife in simple coiffure and plain gowns. One may not even recognise her!”
“Then how would you prefer it be done?”
“As is done among the lower classes. A greater mixing of men and women so that both parties may choose for themselves. But I am not made for marrying, so my opinion is of no relevance.”
“You are quite a radical, Mlle Enjolras.”
“I take that as a compliment, and if you are offended, I do not particularly care. I have no intention of marrying you or anyone else in this room, but it would have been impolite to refuse the invitation.”
“Is it not impolite to offend me?”
“I suppose it is, monsieur, but I shall have to live with my own hypocrisy.”
“I enjoyed the dance, even if you did not. You dance well for someone who takes no pleasure in it.”
“It is not difficult. You have fulfilled your obligation to me, and that will suffice for the evening.” She curtseyed to him and swept off in a rustle of light blue silk.
It was time to be interrogated by the mothers. “So, what did you think? Who does he belong to? He must be very wealthy if he can seek out a bride so early.” A thousand voices seemed to come at her at once.
“Well, to whom does he belong? His name is Richard Joly. He must be cousin to one of you.”
“And he dares to dance with me? He has some nerve. I’m quite certain he was warned against me.”
“What did he say? What did you say? The two of you were talking the entire time.”
“He studies philology, I prefer not to be here at all, and I am a radical for knowing what philology is and not wanting to be here. That was the extent of the conversation. He is quite wealthy and quite free for your daughters, I do assure you. Please excuse me.” She hurried back to her father’s side. “How long must we stay? That wretched M. Joly is looking in my direction again.”
“If we both go, the numbers will be perfectly sufficient.”
“But not as designed. Is he wretched?”
“Perfectly. I do believe he thinks I was joking.”
“You cannot go around trying to offend everyone. Society cannot work in that way.”
“I don’t think he was offended, more’s the pity. Will we work on the lynx tomorrow?”
“We’ll crack his skull and see what we can see if the day is not overcast.”
“I prefer things without fur. If I ever have a choice in the matter. I am the one who has to clean it all up, you know.”
“I know. But a lynx! How could I pass it up?”
Olivie kissed him quickly on the cheek. “I would not have passed it up, either. Oh dear, he’s coming over again!” She looked around quickly, but there was no escape.
“He looks perfectly harmless. I’d never let you marry such a man.”
“Monsieur le docteur, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Richard Joly.”
“I believe you have already met my daughter, monsieur.”
“A charming lady. Mademoiselle,” he bowed to her. “Quite the most charming lady in the room.”
Olivie refrained from rolling her eyes, but only with serious difficulty. “It is nearly time for dinner, is it not?”
“Not yet. Quite some time left, I believe. I should leave you young people to chat.”
“Papa!” Olivie was horrified to see her father leave her alone in the company of M. Joly. “Well, monsieur. I hope you are as scandalised as I to be unchaperoned.”
“Your father is your only chaperone?”
“He is my only family. One cannot bring the housekeeper to the Hourions’ ball, though she would hardly look out of place among the other women of her age. But I suppose it is best that I no longer have a mother. Her reputation among these jealous biddies was not good, and I would suffer the more for it if she were still alive.” She looked over at M. Joly. “She was rebellious, entirely à la mode. I have been told that I resemble her and that such resemblance is not flattering, beauty though she was.”
“Why do you say such things?”
“I told you, monsieur, that I am not made for marrying. If I must be a woman, I should have been born in Sparta rather than Toulon. You should stop wasting your time on me. I shall not marry you, and your continued attentions make it rather worse for me. There must be some other young woman in whom you take an interest. Lisette Baudron is quite lovely. The dark haired one in the corner, dressed in pink, such a bright expression.”
“You wish to get rid of me,” he smiled.
“Or there is Marie-Laure Gistain, the short one in yellow with the very tall headdress. And you must pay appropriate attention to Gisèle Hourion, for she is our hostess, even if she does bear an uncanny resemblance to a horse.”
“You do not like her.”
“I do not like anyone, M. Joly. Small talk bores me to tears. If I must speak, I would prefer it be about something other than the weather and everyone else’s health. No, that is not entirely true. If it must be about everyone else’s health, I would prefer to conduct that conversation in the company of physicians, so that something is actually said.”
“Then I shall start over. Have you ever been to Paris, mademoiselle?”
“I have not. My father no longer travels because he has so many patients. We have obligations that prevent us from spending months away from Toulon.”
“That is a tragedy. You would delight Paris society.”
“You are an idle flatterer. But I would like to see Paris, especially the medical school and the laboratories of the polytechnical school.”
“My meaning had been more in terms of the Salon and the theatre. Do you like art, mademoiselle?”
“I find little use for it, but some is quite lovely. I would rather spend my time in a more useful pursuit. However, some of it does have a political purpose and I freely acknowledge its utility. But even it does not greatly interest me.”
“What of the opera?”
“Again, it has little utility except for beauty, and while man cannot live by bread alone, or on an intellectual diet composed solely of facts, I have little love for the form. I tire of it quickly because it does not engage me. I find the same of novels, too, before you ask. You should understand that I do not speak thus in order to chase you away. I only speak the truth for I see no reason to tell a convenient lie. You would prefer Lisette Baudron. I will introduce you.”
“It is not necessary, Mlle Enjolras. But it is a tragedy the most beautiful woman in the room cannot bear my well-intentioned company.”
“Perhaps it is merely a farce worthy of the Comédie française. Please excuse me, I must speak with my father.” Olivie made what she hoped was a suitably haughty escape. “Papa, we have to go. He is bent on speaking to me, and I don’t want those gossips to think I am entertaining him!”
“You will have to feign illness to leave before dinner.”
“I will do no such thing! What a dreadful lie to press on me! Papa, please. I came. I was seen. I did my best. I danced with him. The others don’t talk to me anymore. I’ve exhausted my conversational abilities. No one wants me here. Why can’t we go home?”
Denis put his arm around his daughter’s trembling shoulders. “I’ll make the excuses, if you will allow me.”
“Thank you, Papa,” she said softly.
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