The Heat of His Eyes

It was Lady Archer who noticed the attendant first and stopped the conversation. “Yes?” she asked in that particular annoyed tone Azelma had always associated with nobility.

“A message for Madame Caffrey. We have put the parcels in your room, madame.” He bowed politely.

“Merci.” How funny to watch him lick my boots, Azelma thought.

“What was that about?” Lady Archer asked in English. Her grasp of French was not good, Azelma had learned early on.

“A few articles of clothing,” she replied in the same language. “America is so far behind the times that when women come to Paris, they put their shopping into storage for a year before wearing it at home. Perfectly ridiculous. But when most of your seamstresses are niggers, I suppose it is understandable. Still, I could not possibly appear at the opera ball dressed in American garments. I am nobody’s poor cousin. It is a kind invitation, princess, and I shall give you no cause to regret my presence.”

“How could you?” Princess Radzjewska smiled. “Ah, you look like a child on Christmas morning. Go to your parcels, my dear. We shall see you tomorrow night for the ball.”

“Not tonight?”

“A card party,” Lady Archer declared.

“Ah.” Another? Azelma thought. That woman would stake her title if she thought she could win a second. Azelma refused to gamble with any of her hard-earned property.

But her joy at the prospect of the parcels noticeably dimmed when she saw brown paper on the floor of the sitting room. “Della! Where are the children?” she shouted. The sight of two little girls tearing the wrappings from the carefully constructed packages from the dressmaker sent her into a rage. “Get out! I said you are not to come into my room! Where is Della? Don’t touch that!“ She slapped away the hand of the youngest, who had still dared to try to touch the startling blue silk under the remnants of the paper wrapping. An elderly black woman stumbled in. “They was just playing, missus. They ain’t done no harm.“

“Your job is to keep them out of my way, you stupid nigger. I have no qualms about leaving you in the street, is that clear? They all warned me that niggers never work in a free country. But you are not like other niggers, are you, Della? You are loyal. You will be loyal to me,” she warned.

“Yes, missus. Come along, now, children.”

“We want to play dress ups!” the eldest shouted.

“Get out of here! Both of you! Or I will thrash you. Then how will you like playing dress ups?” she asked with a venomous sweetness learned from her mother.

“Come along.” Della put a hand on each girl’s shoulder and tried to push them along.

“Get your hands off me, you stupid nigger!” the eldest ordered. Della obeyed without a word, but at least they were finally willing to leave the room.

Azelma locked the door. Dear lord, why did the damned brats have to be so demanding? She had given them their nigger, what more did they want? But the blue of the opened dress caught her eye, and she carefully lifted it from the wrappings. The silk was as beautiful as it had seemed in the shop. Such a bright blue - she was never allowed to wear anything so daring in Savannah. And pink, and green, and calico. Colours she had not worn in what felt an eternity. She immediately pulled off her grey dress and kicked it into a corner of the room. Take that, Leonard, she thought. You’ve had two years and three days of mourning, now I am finally bloody well shot of you. She tried the striped green and white first, then the calico, then the pink, and finally admired herself in the blue silk ball gown. Tomorrow will be a grand success, she assured herself.

But it was not a grand success. Lady Archer tut-tutted over the dramatic colour of the gown. “You’re just out of mourning, my dear. It is not a bit bright?”

“I am sick of mourning my husband. He did not like me, I did not like him, and I shall never wear lavender again,” Azelma insisted. She pretended not to hear Lady Archer whisper to Prince Radzjewsky, “One must tread gingerly around those with ginger hair. A pity. Lavender was more flattering to her complexion.” Princess Radzjewska treated her like a daughter, however, kissing her cheek and complimenting the colour and style.

Azelma was nearly on top of the world as footmen helped her out of the carriage so she might ascend the steps of the opera. Paris is a much nicer city when one has money, she thought. The opera was far better than any entertainments she had attended in Savannah. And yet it quickly became apparent, as the ball commenced, that she was a complete stranger in her own city. These were not the people she had known, thank the lord, and yet they all knew each other, and few cared to dance with Mrs Caffrey, the American widow, regardless of how many seemed to know the Prince and Princess Radzjewska or Lady Archer. It was more difficult here, in her frustration at being ignored, to watch her language and not let any sign of her lowly upbringing mar her entry to the world she had been forced to watch from the sidelines. After a time, even the Princess Radzjewska seemed to ignore her.

The champagne continued to flow, but it merely made her ill. She left the party unnoticed, hoping to either cool her head or strengthen her stomach. But through the baize door, she heard the livelier music of a single violin and a tambourine, and laughter, and muted but raucous voices: the other life she had caught glimpses of during her youth in Paris but had never been allowed to share. In the smoky dimness of the room, her entrance did not disturb either the fiddler or the dancers, but the man nearest the door immediately stood and bowed at the surprising sight of a woman in a silk ball gown.

“Are you lost? Let me escort you back to the ball, madame,” he offered politely, his soft cap scrunched in his big hand. The others were dressed roughly, as he was. They must be the cleaners, Azelma thought. No matter - at least someone here has spoken to me.

“I don’t want to go back. And I don’t think I’m lost,” she added deliberately.

“What’s a dame like you doing back here?”

“Looking for some junk.” The argot slipped out so easily, so comfortably, that she noticeably relaxed without the cheap liquor she sought.

“Plenty of champagne out there.”

She laughed. “Champagne is for debutantes. Whiskey in that flask?”

He passed it over. “Calvados.“

She took a swig and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Damn, I’ve been in America too long. All those false gentlemen, I was forgetting what a proper bloke looks like.” He was a big man, in a way, broader than her husband had been though not as tall, muscular, a proper bloke, except there was no coldness in his eyes.

“Quite a mouth on you.”

“Doesn’t matter so much in a bird, now, does it?”

“What are you? Confidence trickster? What do they all think of you out there?”

“American widow. True enough, though I was born in a little town less than a day’s walk from Paris. Married an American, he’s dead, I’m glad rid of him. My pop was the confidence man. I only have a talent for the truth.”

“Joseph Buquet.”

“Azelma Thénardier.” She was taken aback to realise how easily after a lifetimes of lies her real name surfaced. “My husband’s name was Caffrey,” she quickly added as a correction. “What do you do at the opera?”

“Scene shifter. I pull on the ropes that make the backdrops go up and down.”

“So you see the whole opera every night. How exciting.”

He shrugged and took a drink from his flask before offering it to her again. “It’s just opera.”

“You think I’m out of it. An amateur.”

“Hardly. All the birds think it’s exciting until they come in as dressers or dancers or whatever. It’s a job like any other. Won’t your friends miss you?”

“Not likely. They’re all worms, just like my no-good husband. They called my pop an amateur, but my husband was even worse. At least my pop was an real man. My sister never knew how lucky she was. She had man, threw him off for a stupid pretty thing who never looked twice at her. I would have traded my husband for her bloke any day, lingre and all.”

“You like a man with a knife?”

“I like a man who knows shit when he smells it and doesn’t put up with it. A strong man. Like you.” She ran her fingers along his square, unshaven jaw, delighting in the roughness. But she pulled back - what if she were too forward? Never been a whore. Left that to Eponine, diddling Parnasse and trying to string along M. Marius. Azelma had vowed never to be a flirt, or even a tease.

“Might I have this dance, madame?” There was laughter in his eyes that belied the formal tone of the offer. Her heart lifted as he took her small hand in his big one, and she delighted in his firm grasp of her waist. His hands had purpose in their touch, a purpose she found intoxicating after the dullness of her married life. They danced until she could dance no more, and when they collapsed on a heap of canvas dustcovers, away from everyone else, she was not surprised to find her head on his shoulder.

She did not know if she kissed him or if he kissed her. All she knew was that she could taste the brandy on his tongue, and in that taste, the world of pleasure seemed to open up before her. She slipped off her shoe and teased his calf with one stocking-clad toe. It was so easy to hike her skirts as she lost the last of her reticence in the feel and taste of his mouth. She unbuttoned his trousers, she caressed him, and when he began to push between her legs, she cried out in the pleasure she had thought merely one of de Sade’s fictions.

Even as she straightened her dress and attempted to smooth her hair, she felt a warmth she had not felt before, a pleasure in life stronger than she had gleaned from any material thing Leonard’s money had bought her.

“You’re quite a dame, you know?”

“Thank you.” She blushed in a combination of pleasure and embarrassment.

Buquet escorted her back to the main hall, where the crowd of revelers had thinned to a scattering of groups taking their goodbyes. Princess Radzjewska rushed up to Azelma as quickly as her old bones would allow. “Where did you get off to?”

“Forgive me. I got a bit lost, and I must have dozed off. This man was kind enough to lead me back. I’m afraid I was a terrible bore tonight.”

“You look feverish. We should get you home. You mustn’t take chances, not with the weather so changeable. Quite a rough looking man - are you quite all right, dear?”

“Quite all right.” Azelma could not help smiling. But the night was cold, and she cursed the carriage ride home that drained much of her happiness by the time she returned to the privacy of her room. As she lay alone in her cold bed, her racing thoughts turned to less happy paths. It was an aberration. She should never have done it. Did she think she could really marry a common scene shifter? It made no difference who her father was and how she had lived in Paris before: she was now the widow of Leonard Caffrey, the scion of an old and failing American dynasty. She had his bestial brats - how wonderful it would be to have it out and call them mômes and be understood. Buquet was the Paris she had left behind, where one could be called “quite a dame“ and it was a compliment, where liquor was a part of joy as well as sorrow, where one did not have to answer to any law except ones own heart.

It could not continue; she knew that. But she reasoned that there was no harm in remembering the warmth in his eyes. After a lifetime of playing pretend, why not claim him as the model of the lost husband? Better Buquet than Leonard. All the advantages of Leonard’s money, and all the false memories of a life with Buquet. Love was always just a fairy tale, anyway. Just a conte de fée. Why not make it all up?

Besides, he’d never like the damned brats anyway.


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