The rattle of muskets and rumble of cannon, like thunder from an approaching storm, distant but distinct, interrupting the languor of the late morning heat. Victorine’s eyes darted from her vanity to the tall bedroom windows, which looked out across the northern half of Paris, all the way to Montmartre. They had been left half open the night before to ease the withering July heat. As the young woman sat and listened to the fading echo of the guns, there followed several moments of dead silence, and then the gentle cooing of doves on the roof above.
There was no mistaking it, however; Victorine was quite familiar with the sound of gunfire. The only daughter of a man without sons, her father the Count had taught her to shoot and hunt from an early age upon the wide-open game wardens comprising the Lafourcade family estate outside Soissons.
Does this mean people are dying? Victorine wondered. Tensions in Paris had been simmering for weeks, stoked by rumors of impending revolt by restless—— and hungry—— commoners. Victorine was shocked when just two days earlier—— on Sunday no less—— an angry mob had violently attacked the monastery Saint-Lazare and taken its stores of wheat, distributing it to the starving masses in the central market not seven blocks from her apartment. The disquieting sight of foreign troops moving around the outskirts of the city, sent on orders from the King in response to the mounting unrest, only fed the anxiety.
Because of the heat, Victorine had shunned convention and begun sleeping without a night garment. She moved to the window and leaned out, her flowing curls barely obscuring her breasts from full view from the street below, which was empty, save for a lone forgeron making his way to work. He had taken a good long look at Victorine’s unclothed form before she even noticed him, so she rebuffed him by giving him an indifferent Spanish Slap. As the man began to say something equally rude in response, a door opened behind her.
“Victorine! Come ‘way from that window! There’s danger out there today!”
Victorine turned to face her maidservant, Halima, a largish African woman whose complexion was pure Congolese, and whose exotic Lingalla inflection tingled the Continental ear. “Oh dear,” the maid said, as she quickly came into the room, grabbed a silk robe laying across the foot of the brass bed, and held it out for Victorine to put on. “If Monsieur Renelle knew you were parading naked like Eve in front of all Paris, he’d——”
“He wouldn’t give a damn,” Victorine said.
Halima looked with dismay upon her young lady, her charge since Victorine’s childhood, who was leaning back against the window sill with her arms crossed, glaring back with dancing eyes. The maid shook her head.
“If I had my way, I’d parade naked up and down the entire length of The Champs-Élysées!” Victorine said, as she stepped away from the window, yanking the robe out of the maid’s hand and draping it loosely over her shoulders, leaving the front defiantly wide open.
“Now why by the saints would you be wanting to do that?” Halima asked. She closed the robe and tied the belt snugly around Victorine’s waist.
“That’s how the women in your homeland do, Halima! Why can’t we European women do it, too?”
Halima turned and headed towards the dressing closet, mumbling something. Victorine, pretending to not hear her, fell backwards onto the bed.
Halima emerged from the closet making the sign of the cross with one hand and holding a nicely tailored day frock in the other. “Stand back up, child; time to get dressed. Monsieur be here soon.”
“He’s coming to lunch, not breakfast.”
“Well, you can’t go ’round like this all morning. Get up, please.”
Victorine raised her head slightly, took one look at the drab green frock Halima was holding, and plopped back down into the bed. “I’m not wearing that ridiculous thing.”
Halima frowned, returned to the closet, and a moment later emerged holding a lemon-colored sun dress made for just such a hot summer day. “Stand up, m’Lady.”
Victorine rolled onto her side and lifted up on an elbow so she could see what Halima was holding. “Oh hell no!”
As Halima lowered her head and turned back toward the closet, Victorine’s attention was caught by the beautiful sitting room dress of azure Duchesse satin which was fitted over a headless mannequin standing near the vanity. She popped up and went over and began stroking the sleek fabric in her fingers and against the back of her hands. Such a dress was a rarity even among the wealthy due to its color. “Here, Hallie… help me on with this.”
“Now, now, child; in this heat you don’t need to be wearing a fancy thing like that——”
“Don’t backtalk me, woman, I’ve made my decision. Fetch me a corset and help me on with it.”
Halima sighed and retrieved undergarments and a corset from the closet. As she ably guided Victorine into them, Halima continued to mutter under her breath, while Victorine steadied herself by holding the maid’s shoulders. Halima then removed the dress from the mannequin, helped Victorine step down through it, and began lacing it up loosely around her.
“I suppose it be okay, since you can’t leave the apartment today, what with so much trouble about,” Halima said.
“As a matter of fact, I am going out today.”
The maid wheeled her gently around and met her with a scowl. “No. Your father, bless his soul, he would send me to Tangier and sell me to the slave traders if he know I let you go out today.”
“My father is old and his mind is feeble.”
“This is true; but I promised him during his better days that I keep you from trouble. Besides, what would Monsieur say?”