THE FLAMES’ SHARE
Gaëlle de Nohan
translated by William Rodarmor
Part I: Chapter 1
The Marquise de Fontenilles was taking her sweet time, making her wait in the antechamber, which was decorated like a candy box. As the minutes passed, Violaine could feel her confidence draining away, eroded by impatience and nervousness. She had such hopes for this meeting! The marquise was one of the lace-garbed sphinxes that guarded the entry to the Bazar de la Charité. Without her assent, there was little chance that Countess Violaine de Raezal would be chosen as one of its sellers. She was aware that the mystery surrounding her past didn’t argue in her favor, and that her husband’s name had lost some of its power now that he was no longer here to watch over her. After his death, when the countess was received, questions floated to the surface amid the most exquisite politeness. For thirteen years Gabriel de Raezal’s piercing blue eyes had driven those questions away. Now, emboldened by his death, they had surfaced again.
Violaine took a few steps to the window and looked absently out over boulevard Saint-Germain, whose tumult seem to politely hush before reaching the de Fontenilles residence. She wondered why she was so bent on participating in Paris high society’s most fashionable charity sale. Couldn’t she help the poor in some less public way? Was she letting herself be driven by the wrong motives? When her daughter-in-law Léonce d’Ambronay predicted that she would never be accepted into the ranks of Bazar sellers, adding that she wanted to spare her the humiliation of a rejection, Violaine felt her pride rise in protest. Savoring the cruelty of the insinuation, Léonce had looked at her with the same blue eyes as her father’s, a smile hovering on her pink button mouth. Maybe she had used her Faubourg Saint-Germain connections to make sure her mother-in-law would find the doors closed. After all, she often dined with the marquise, even if mourning prevented her from enjoying the season as fully as she would have liked this year.
When a liveried footman entered, the countess started and turned toward the door. Slim and elegant in a black dress that brought out the honey color of her braided chignon, Violaine was still young enough that her beauty did not look out of place. But also young enough that her widowhood constituted a threat in the eyes of other women, a fear that would revive certain rumors they had pretended to forget.
The footman led her into the salon where the marquise awaited and carefully closed the doors behind him, leaving them alone together.
“Something came up, dear madame, and I apologize,” said Pauline de Fontenilles with the worldly grace that had built her reputation. “Please sit down.”
“Thank you for being good enough to see me, even though we don’t know each other.”
Had Violaine imagined a little glint in the marquise’s eyes? The one that seemed to say Oh, I know you all right! Of course they had crossed paths here and there during the season of balls, as twirling, décolleté figures trailing hints of rice powder along with the aroma of subtle, refined essences. But they had never been formally introduced, and in this world, that was enough to create distance.
“I heard about your husband,” said the marquise, “and I extend my sincere condolences in your mourning. There are times when the Lord tests us without mercy, aren’t there? Can he strike us any more painfully than by taking away those we love?” she added, with a compassion that seemed more addressed to herself than to her guest.
It was well known that God hadn’t spared the marquise: her two children had been carried off by typhoid fever a few years earlier.
“We may have been too happy with our fate, warmed by the love of our nearest and dearest,” replied Violaine softly. “It makes the lesson all the more painful. Madame, I won’t hide the fact that since the loss of my husband I feel the need to be useful to those weaker than myself. I’m eager to devote myself to charitable works in Gabriel’s memory, who was a very generous man.”
Again, that flicker in the marquise’s green eyes. Or did Violaine imagine it?
“That decision does you honor, madame,” said her hostess with an encouraging smile, as she played absentmindedly with the stone of a cameo pinned on her gathered silk corsage. “God knows we are short of arms and willpower in assisting all those unfortunates. Where would you like to start helping us? Have you chosen a particular charity to work with?”
Here we are, thought Violaine, who forced yourself to look detached as she framed the request that had brought her here.
“I would like to start by selling in a stall at the Bazar de la Charité, in a few weeks time,” she said. "Which charity I support doesn't matter to me.”
This time, it wasn’t her imagination. A glint had indeed flared and lingered in Pauline de Fontenille’s look. There was anger in those veiled green eyes. Violaine had just turned onto a forbidden path, without respecting the no entry sign.
“But why the Bazar de la Charité?” asked the marquise. “l admit, I have to wonder about such a choice. It would be more suitable to start more modestly, in one of our charities. Besides, you know that our sellers are longtime patrons, and, if I can be candid, stalls at the Bazar are expensive.”
That sentence contained both a lie and a truth. It was true that many illustrious Bazar saleswomen had worked for years for Paris charitable organizations, but Countess Violaine de Raezal knew that her name alone should be enough to admit her to that coterie. There was something else, of course. What hints had been passed along to the marquise? What murmured asides or poisonous rumors had gone buzzing through the salons, ballrooms, and boudoirs?
“Well, I understand your hesitation,” said Violaine. “I plan to work in the field as well, of course. But the Bazar de la Charité would be a chance to launch my new life in service to the poor. You see, Gabriel and I went shopping there last year, and he told me then that he would like to see me participate in such a noble enterprise. Now that he has left me, I would so like to fulfill that wish as an homage to him this year.”
She was lying, in part. True, she and her husband had gone to the Bazar, but Gabriel hadn’t been drawn there by the good religious works of the fashionable charity sale, but by the aura of aristocratic virtue the lucrative operation gave off. The Bazar been created a few years earlier by Henri Blount with the help of Baron de Mackau. The idea was to bring together most of the city’s charities in one place for a few weeks in the spring, and make it the season’s most desirable event by having the finest flower of French nobility work in the stalls as simple saleswomen. Anyone who was anybody in Paris came running to buy baubles from these blueblood businesswomen. Gabriel had mused aloud that his beloved wife deserved this token of the world’s esteem. It would be one more step toward respectability, which was so long in coming from a milieu that overlooked any number of private or political scandals, but was merciless to girls thought to have fallen. Evidence of the sin wasn’t even necessary. Suspicion alone burned a brand that no fine lace, exquisite embroidery, or even the sparking diamond tiara of a countess married in the Christian faith could ever hide.
Violaine had protested, arguing that she didn’t need those people’s respect.
“You know, I won’t always be here and you’ll be left alone,” he said. “Those people are wolves, for all that. If they consider you one of their own, they’ll protect you.”
Gabriel had felt the illness progressively gnawing at him. The pain in his body whispered that his life’s end was already set, and that anxiety was bound up with his worry about her. His children would be of no help to his young wife, he knew. They had never liked her, and she would be a competitor in the succession when he died. Violaine knew that the anxiety of leaving her defenseless consumed him, and was determined that he should depart this world in peace.
“All right, my love,” she murmured, kissing him near the ear. “I’ll do what it takes to be accepted by the wolves of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.”
But that seemed less easy today, sitting across from the lovely marquise, who had never worried about her future, passing from her parents’ protection to the generosity of a wealthy, titled husband. Pauline de Fontenilles had never shivered with hunger or cold, never feared being without resources or finding herself alone in the world. She busied herself with charity work because that’s what women like her did, and because it let her feel that she was a better person. And maybe she was, spending time in shelters and visiting shacks where wretches who had reverted to the state of animals cast haggard eyes on this good fairy giving them food and drink with her kid-gloved hands.
“Madame, I understand that the Bazar is a symbol you have set your heart on, and believe me, I wish I could accede to your request,” said the marquise with polite firmness. “But I’m sure you know that the number of stalls is permanently fixed. This year we are moving to rue Jean-Goujon, to a new warehouse space that unfortunately can’t be expanded. We will only be able to set up some twenty stalls, and we already have more sellers than we can use. Unless there are last-minute cancellations, I’m afraid I can’t oblige you. On the other hand, if you’d like me to introduce you to some of our charities, I would be happy to do so. Feel free to use my name! I’m personally involved with three different ones in Paris, and my address book will open a good thirty more to you. The choice is yours!” she added, wrapping a smile around the stinging refusal she had just delivered.
“I won’t hesitate to use your name, madame,” said Violaine, whose gaze was now veiled with sadness. “But at the risk of seeming forward, may I ask you to please consider my request? I feel I owe it to my husband. If a space opens up in the Bazar in the coming weeks, can I hope that you’ll be good enough to think of me?”
“I wouldn’t count too much on that, if I were you,” said the marquise from behind a worldly mask that was beginning to crack with irritation. “We’ve never had so many charities in Paris, and we would be happy if the number of the poor were not subject to the same inflation. Even in an area where competition shouldn’t exist, it does. The positions are expensive… Just yesterday I had to turn down a friend’s daughters. The holy work of Monsieur Blount is a victim of its own success.”
Given her visitor’s rank, the marquise under normal circumstances would have pretended to consider her request. Then, having made her wait a few days, would inform her that her efforts had been in vain and that to her great regret there was nothing more to be done. Turning her down flat was a snub. Violaine swallowed her disappointment and anger, thanked the marquise for her generosity, promised to recount the joys and pains she might experience as a lady benefactor, and took her leave. Once out on the sidewalk of the boulevard with its shouting carriage drivers, she glanced up at the marquise’s tall windows. The Faubourg Saint-Germain wolves weren’t exactly making her welcome.
Violaine dismissed her coachman. Her residence on rue de Babylone was nearby and she needed to walk. Her head was buzzing with the humiliation she had received and her thoughts were choked with sobs. Drawing her black coat around her, she suddenly felt cold and hungry, left on her own in this busy city, and deprived of the loving gaze in which Gabriel had held her for thirteen years.
Part II: Chapter 9
Joseph’s face was so badly burned he could hardly see, and his half-closed right eye blinked madly. The duchesse d’Alençon’s coachman was on his fourth round trip to the flames. Not into the Bazar itself – it was impossible to enter it -- but to the area near the two doors blocked by the bodies piled between the steps and the street. Among those bodies, many people were still alive, and Joseph wouldn’t rest before he’d saved them, one by one. He had already brought out a dozen, including the girl with the blue corsage. He didn’t know if they would survive, didn’t want to hear that they might die of their burns. They all had to live, because he’d pulled them from the fire. So much effort couldn’t just lead to death.
Doctor Livet was forbidding him to go back, urging him to obey, and Joseph gathered from others people’s glances that he must be in bad shape. But he couldn’t sleep before he had saved them, all those moaning people in the pile who stirred when someone stepped on them. So he went back, his head wrapped in a damp cloth that he allowed people to change when he passed through the stables courtyard. When he returned, a precious burden on his back or in his arms, all that was left of his turban were a few dirty, blackened threads. His wounds were a myriad of painful stars that fused together into a strange exaltation that galvanized his muscles and his will.
The coachman went back into the smoke again, a corner of his turban over his nose and mouth. He felt as if a swarm of furious bees was stinging his eyes. His good eye began to water as he felt his way toward the Bazar doors. When he spotted the hem of a red dress, he could feel his heart began to pound. He felt awash in a rush of adrenaline and emotion that rose at the moment he saved someone. Nothing would ever make him feel this way again. He would never again feel this powerful, rising tide of energy. He grabbed the red skirt to pull the woman out, then grabbed her arms and yanked her from the pile, grunting like a woodcutter. He hoisted her onto his shoulder and carried her out to the light, his eyes down, blinded by the flames and the smoke, feeling heavy and clumsy under his burden.
Staggering to the courtyard, he laid the woman on the ground. His legs were failing him; he couldn’t take another step.
“Doctor!” he croaked wearily. “I got one!”
Livet leaned over the body without touching it and looked up, his eyes full of pity and concern.
“She’s dead, Joseph.”
Incredulous, he shook his head, unable to answer, his protest reduced to a fierce grimace.
“This woman is dead!” shouted the doctor.
The coachman now looked down at the black, shrunken skull and shredded body. He had been carrying a corpse. How could that have happened? What evil trick had been played on him?
“You have to get yourself treated, Joseph. I forbid you from going back in there. I’m forbidding you, you hear?”
Doctor Livet’s eyes were blazing with anger. He wasn’t about to let this man die right under his nose.
The coachman shrugged, his half-closed eye making him look like an exhausted, raging Quasimodo. He’d been fooled by the red skirt, had lost time, wasted precious time hauling a corpse when others nearby were crying for help, gasping and heaving their last breaths in hope.
“Gentlemen, seize this that man and take him to Beaujon Hospital.”
Joseph had to submit, unable to fight two husky nurses who didn’t have time to waste on him. He demanded that the duc d’Alençon be told that he was abandoning his post against his will. The two nurses exchanged a glance. The poor man had clearly lost his mind.
* * *
When Laszlo de Nérac caught sight of the Bazar de la Charité, firemen were aiming their hoses at the flames licking the street’s adjoining buildings. A thick cloud of smoke enveloped the building, which could be sensed more than seen, a big, dark mass from which shot dancing flames that criss-crossed the sky, a mesmerizing, funereal spectacle for the observers beginning to crowd the street.
Laszlo had to get out of his carriage at the head of the street, which was blocked off by the police, and continue on foot. He was gripped by a terrible fear, his every breath stabbing at him as he stepped aside for passing stretcher bearers. He was stunned to see the fire’s ravages on the neighboring buildings.
He had to find Constance, come what may.
A group of people had knocked over a little girl and Laszlo helped her to her feet.
“Where are you coming from? Where’s your mother?”
The child was wearing a little black coat and holding a candy cane whose colors had melted. Her dirty nose, sugar-slick face, and frightened eyes showed she was on her own.
“Maman’s in the Bazar,” she said. “Papa went to look for her.”
“You can’t stay here by yourself,” said Laszlo. “Come with me. We’ll go see those people over there. They’re very nice, and they’ll take care of you until we find your parents.”
As he said those words, Laszlo realized how hollow they were.
A little way down the street, he entrusted the girl to a pair of nuns from Notre-Dame de l’Éternel Secours, who had come from rue Francois 1er , worried about their sisters’ fate. They agreed to look after the child while waiting for news of her family.
Fifty yards from the Bazar, the heat was unbearable. Laszlo wanted to get closer but was pushed back by a group of policemen. When he protested that he’d been sent by Le Matin, they curtly told him that only fire and medical personnel were being let through. He tried to get around their line, but a police sergeant grabbed him by the shoulder.
“That’s as far as you’re going, monsieur.”
“My fiancée was in the Bazar,” shouted Laszlo, who had run out of arguments. “Do you know that where the wounded are being taken?”
“Beaujon Hospital in Lariboisière, but what the hell do I know?” said the sergeant, glaring at Laszlo as if to say, Can’t you see what a disaster we have here? “Don’t just stand there!” he snapped. “Go home. There’s no point in---”
The rest of his sentence was lost in an enormous crash that made them all turn around. The entire structure of the Bazar had collapsed, destroying the last hope of finding any survivors. A terrible silence fell, gray with ash and smoke, heavy with the infinite darkness into which the last prisoners of the Bazar de la Charité had been plunged.