Chapter 2: La Mode

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The bal des victimes was the talk of Paris

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The bal des victimes was the talk of Paris.

Lucienne heard them talking at the café she passed as she made her way across the city. She heard them talking at the barbershop. She heard them talking at the tailor's and at the florist.

"Have you heard?" they all said. "It is scandalous, what these young people are doing."

"A ball for the victims. Perhaps it is not so bad?"

"They rejoice at the deaths of their loved ones! Dancing and costuming themselves as those who went under the guillotine! Did the Revolution teach them nothing?"

"So frivolous. They want their parties, and they will have them at the expense of all else..."

Lucie slipped into the Tuileries Gardens to escape the whispers. The high hedges and maze of walkways also made her feel like she had entered a secret place.

Could they tell from the blush on her cheeks that she had overheard? More importantly, could they tell she had been invited? She hoped she had kept her head down and her face blank. Without her hair buttressed up on top of her head and her waist cinched into a tight corset, Lucienne reasoned that few would remember her as a noble. She looked like everyone else now.

She had learned to dress in the striped dresses favored by the Revolutionaries. With the dressmakers and marchandes de modes who had been so popular while Marie Antoinette was at court now gone, having fled the city, fashion magazines were not printed so regularly. Lucienne recalled afternoons spent looking through such magazines, listening to her mother read aloud about the fashions of the week. The sans-culottes ruled now, simple, working styles that hardly seemed appropriate for a ball.

Lucienne could not recall even seeing a fashion magazine of late. She considered this as she hurried around to the rear entrance of the Bourreau residence. Madame Bourreau, a woman in her fifties, hardly seemed the type to be concerned with fashion. Yet Lucie had never seen her out of her corsets and bustles, and her daughter Alphonsine was much the same. She must have some of the more recent fashion magazines lying around, if such things still existed. Perhaps the bourgeoisie did not give a whit about their clothes, and wished to wear practical styles, but those nobles who supported the ancien regime must long for those decadent years when one rushed to have new gowns made.

The Madame must look at the magazines while she took breakfast, Lucienne surmised. Or perhaps she handed the task over to her servants. Lucie's own position required her to sit and be pleasant company for Alphonsine. Whatever the girl wished to do to pass her time was what Lucie did. If Alphonsine wanted to read by the fire, Lucie would also read. If Alphonsine wanted to embroider, Lucie would do the same.

Lucienne knew she was lucky to have such a position. She was not required to do much that was considered difficult, no brute work. There were women who did the work of men in the fish market. A mob of such women had stormed Versailles, and Lucienne could not imagine what it might take to become such a woman. So, a companion was good work. But ever so boring.

Alphonsine was only a year older than Lucie, but it was clear within her first few days there that there was a reason that Alphonsine did not have proper friends and was rarely invited to social events. Aside from being homely, she was a bore. She had little to say on any topic, making Lucie's attempts at conversation difficult. It was a relief when Alphonsine wanted to read. At least then they might talk about books – by now, Lucienne had read an impressive number – or not speak at all.

Certainly Alphonsine did not have any interest in fashion. As Lucie entered through the servants' quarters and made her way to the front hall, where a girl no older than Annette took Lucie's hat, she kept her eyes open for any signs of a fashion magazine. She made her way into the parlor, where Alphonsine was hammering away at the harpsichord. Lucie winced. Luckily, Alphonsine and her either very patient or very tone-deaf instructor had their backs to her.

There seemed to be no fashion magazines here, either. Lucie sank into a chair to wait for the dreadful music to end so she might applaud Alphonsine's efforts. She had no idea what she was going to do to decide what to wear. She had coin only for food, even if a magazine cost a few livres.

The tired chords clanged to a halt, and Lucienne waited half a moment before clapping. "You are certainly improving!" she said brightly.

"I despise the harpsichord," Alphonsine moaned, even though her tutor was right there. Lucienne smiled politely.

Once the tutor had packed his things and gone on to his next appointment, Alphonsine sat close beside Lucie and said, "Have you heard about this scandalous ball?"

Lucie decided to play dumb. Alphonsine did not know anything about Lucie's previous life or her family, because Alphonsine rarely asked her anything about herself. "A ball?"

"Olivier Legrand, do you know him? He lives just across the way. Apparently, he received a mysterious invitation to a bal des victimes. Can you imagine? A ball just for those who have lost someone to the guillotine! Well, that would be half of Paris at this point, but still. It's terrible, no?"

Lucie had seen Olivier on occasion. He was quite good-looking, and seemed none the worse for his uncle having gone under the blade. He and his mother had inherited everything, as Monsieur Legrand had never married and Olivier's mother had been a widow.

"Does he plan to attend?" Lucie asked.

Alphonsine made a face. "If he does, I should never think the same of him again. I heard that everyone in attendance will be wearing that new style. I cannot even describe it, it is so obscene."

"What new style?" Lucie felt she sounded out of touch. "I have not seen anyone wearing anything obscene on the streets."

"Everything is sheer. The fabric they wear," Alphonsine emphasized, "is sheer. One can see everything. And the décolleté!" Alphonsine put a hand to her breast, not that she had any risk of showing skin there. The drab brown fabric of her dress covered everything.

Lucienne wanted to ask where Alphonsine had come by this information. Where she had seen such things, but she knew better. A servant, even a higher class servant such as a companion, did not accompany their mistresses in public. No, Lucie was an ornament. A pretty girl who showed visitors that Alphonsine had friends. Because Lucie had grown up in a household far more lavish than even this, she made an ideal companion for Alphonsine.

In the end, however, it was Lucie who had to cater to Alphonsine's tastes.

"Sheer fabric! Mon dieu. That is obscene. And this is what they will wear to a ball honoring their deceased parents?"

"Oh, the ball is not to honor anyone. You cannot imagine. Those who attend will wear red ribbons about their necks, to symbolize the guillotine. Helene Villeneuve is attending, and her mother told Maman that she plans to drip red paint all over her gown. Can you imagine such a horrid thing?"

"It sounds ghastly," Lucienne agreed.

Alphonsine shuddered. "Well, I suppose if I had seen my father's head cut off, I might do the same. Perhaps this whole bal des victimes is a way for the revolutionaries to find more nobles to execute. Simply horrendous. Well, enough of this talk. Shall we sit in the garden and embroider for a while?"

Lucienne nodded. The afternoon passed quite pleasantly enough after that.

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