October 7, 1793
God help me, Désirée said to herself, as she tried to ignore the dull, persistent ache of her empty stomach, I cannot even earn a living as a whore.
The fashionable hurried past her, eager to escape the chilly night air, toward the bright lights of the cafés, restaurants, theaters, and brothels of the Palais-Égalité. Along the stately length of the stone arcades, the lamps burned overhead, illuminating the restless swirl of humanity in its never-ending pursuit of amusement.
The women lurking beneath the rows of sculpted lime trees were banished from the light. Patient as the poor who once had formed lines before church doors to receive bread and soup, they waited, unsmiling, their eyes vacant, until some solitary figure from the milling crowd might fade away from the glitter and join them in the shadows.
She had waited hours in the dark, since before the twilight had fallen on a gray, wet October day, and seen the other women come and go, while only one man had approached her.
“You,” he had said, out of the darkness, plucking her sleeve. “You’ve a pretty figure. What’s your price?”
She had jerked about, surprised. He was middle-aged, stout, his neat frock coat cut in last year’s fashion: a bourgeois from the provinces enjoying a holiday in Paris.
“What’s your price?” he repeated.
That, at least, she knew; she had asked some of the other women what the going rate was. Those who had not laughed at her, snickering about amateurs, had been friendly enough. “Th-three sous, and the price of the room.”
“If they rent by the hour, then. I’m not looking to spend the whole night with you.”
“Yes, citizen.” She turned and gestured at the arcades, toward a small hotel that charged lower prices and turned a blind eye to what might go on behind closed doors (as did all hotels in the Palais-Égalité, even after the pleasure gardens had been “officially” purged of prostitutes). The man followed her.
They had nearly reached the hotel when abruptly he thrust his face in hers, squinting in the bright lamplight shining through a café window.
“No wonder you women skulk in the shadows. How old are you?”
“I—twenty-nine.” She had shaved five years from her true age, but evidently no one wanted anything over twenty-five or, better, twenty—
“And new to this line of work, from your manner. Well, I’m not paying for mutton dressed as lamb.”
She had gazed after his retreating figure for a moment, speechless. At last she had heaved a long sigh, half in regret, half in relief, and fingered the coins in her pocket. Her last two sous—less than the price of a single meal. She had preserved her virtue for another half hour, and soon would virtuously starve.
Of all the misnamed folk in the world, she mused, not for the first time, I am the most absurd. Désirée … but no one desires me, even as a whore.
“How much?” said a voice, a different voice, close beside her. “Not too much, I hope—you’re a little long in the tooth to be charging full price.”
“Two sous,” she muttered.
“Two sous for you? I don’t pay two sous for any trollop who’s past sixteen.” He ran his hands over her, snickering as he prodded her. “Not much meat on those bones. Half a sou for a quick one in the alley.” His hand was on her breast, clutching and kneading at her. “What do you say, little chicken?”
“I say you keep it to yourself until you’ve paid,” she said between clenched teeth, her cheeks burning, as she attempted to push him away. “And don’t paw at me in public.”
“Don’t paw at me in public!” he repeated in a high-pitched voice, with a sneer. “Dear me, how modest we are.” His other hand slid down and grabbed at her through her skirt, between her legs. The prodding, grasping fingers fumbled and groped and would not, would not let go of her. She wrenched her arm away and slapped him.
“You little bitch!”
Suddenly her ears were ringing, and a sharp pain was creeping along the line of her cheekbone to the back of her skull, and the world was spinning about her. She was sitting—no, lying—on something cold and wet. As she struggled up to a sitting position, through a dim haze she saw him dust off his hands and saunter away.
“Bastard,” said one woman, a shabby one near her own age, as another laughed drunkenly and swayed off in pursuit of a customer. “All bastards, all of them.” She reached down and offered her hand. “Here.”
Désirée lurched to her knees, gritting her teeth in an attempt to swallow back her despair. The skirt of her green gown, her last dress, was dripping and smeared with mud.
“Mademoiselle?” said a man’s voice beside her. “Are you all right?”
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, opened them, and found herself gazing up at a tall, lean man in a shabby overcoat. “Are you all right?” the man repeated, bending toward her. “That was quite a blow he gave you. Better you should sit down—you don’t want to faint. Someone might seize his opportunity to rob you.”
“Rob me—” she exclaimed, and all at once, to her hideous embarrassment, she burst into violent, gasping sobs. “Oh, dear God, if only there were something in my pocket to steal!”
The stranger shook his head and offered her a hand to help her to her feet. “Come, come, it can’t be all that bad—”
“Yes, it is that bad!” she screamed, no longer caring who might hear her. “What do you know about it? Look at me! Just a useless woman whom no one wants, not even as a whore, and with two sous to call her own!”
“Here, now,” he said, handing her a handkerchief and drawing her aside, away from the other women. “Dry your eyes, squeeze out your skirts, and let’s get something warm inside you. You’ve not eaten, I suppose?”
“Eaten …” When had she eaten last? “Not since yesterday morning. Some bread.”
“Come with me.”
Dazed, Désirée followed him. He strode along with the easy step of one who was accustomed to walking, leading her out of the Palais-Égalité to the narrow side streets west of the gardens, at last pausing before a food stall whose owner had not yet hung up his shutters. “Here, some soup will do you good.”
She glanced up at him as he pulled out a few crumpled assignats for the soup seller. Her companion was a lean, dark-haired man of forty or so. A broad-brimmed, low-crowned round hat shadowed a long, stern face, which she could just make out in the gloom, though she caught the glitter of eyes in the feeble glimmer from the soup seller’s lantern. The man’s clothes were less than impressive; he wore an old, well-worn black worsted suit that might have belonged to a lawyer’s clerk, and hanging open over that, a dark overcoat of indeterminate color, which once had been of good quality before moths and the passage of time had ravaged it.
“You’re very kind, citizen,” she said, avoiding his gaze. “After what I said to you. Anyone else would have pushed me into the mud again for such insolence.”
“Such men are swine. You’ve not been long in your trade, have you?”
“Only today. I had no more money, and nothing to eat, and the rent is due. And there’s no work in Paris, at least nothing I know how to do.”
The soup seller put a bowl and spoon before her. She seized the spoon and began wolfing down the soup. Oh, the exquisite feeling of having something in her stomach at last, vegetables, a little tough meat, and plenty of thick broth! The tall man watched her, smiling.
She glanced up at him, wishing she could scrape the bowl out with her finger to get up the last few drops. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, citizeness. You’re well-spoken,” he added, turning away from the stall. “Who and what are you, for God’s sake?”
“My father was the second son of a gentleman and owned a little land, but we never had two sous to rub together, and we lost the few dues from the property when the Revolution abolished them. Then my father died, two years ago, but not before he’d gambled away most of what we had; and I had to sell our property to settle his debts. I had a fiancé, but he jilted me in the end, because I had no fortune.” An old, monotonous story, one everyone had heard a dozen times before. She paused, but he merely nodded.
“So I came to Paris as companion to my mother’s cousin, who’s married to a rich man. Then her husband made advances, and when I—when I kicked him, he threw me out. That was four months ago. I can’t get any work. I don’t know any trade besides sewing, and half the dressmakers have shut up their shops and the other half aren’t hiring anyone new. I’ve sold everything I had, my bits of jewelry, my books, even my clothes. So at last I came here, to offer the only thing I had left to sell, but it seems I’m no good even for that.” Her stomach rumbled and she clasped her hands over it, embarrassed.
“I think your appetite wants more than some soup,” her unexpected savior observed. “There’s an eating-house nearby. Come along.”
She blinked away tears, so weary she had no strength left to resist. “A favor for a favor—that’s it, isn’t it? Do whatever you want. You can have me for the whole night if you like. At least the room will be warm.”
“You misunderstand me. I’m not looking for a whore. Let’s say,” he continued, as he steered her down the street and gestured to a narrow alley, “that I think you’ve had more than your share of ill luck. The least I can do, out of Christian charity, is to give you a hot meal.”
“Thank you, citizen,” she whispered, wondering how many months it had been since she had heard the word “Christian” used without derision. Many of the brutalized, bitter sansculottes, day laborers, and prostitutes she now saw every day had little love for the Catholic Church, which, for centuries, had taxed them and dictated to them while its cynical, worldly bishops flaunted their wealth. Though the Church, in its present state-sanctioned, revolutionary form, was still tolerated, anticlerical feeling had been swelling of late.
“This way—it’s not far now.”
He gestured her onward and she preceded him into the empty alley, feeling her way along. The closest street lamp was far behind them and the chinks of light from behind barred shutters, and the tiny new moon above, cast only a meager light, barely enough for her to see her groping hands.
“Are you sure this is the way?”
“It’s a shortcut. Keep going.”
She stumbled on a loose cobble, hearing it clatter like a pistol shot in the silence, and stopped short, heart pounding. She was all alone here with him, isolated and helpless, just as he wanted her.
Fool, she told herself. You credulous little fool.
She was going to be raped in an alley, by a degenerate with unnatural desires that a decent woman should not even know of, for the price of a bowl of soup.
She twisted about, but in his dark coat and broad hat he was invisible in the murk.
“Please—please don’t hurt me. I said you could do whatever you wanted. Just don’t hurt me.”
Now she could hear his breath, close by in the darkness. His arm slid about her from behind, clutching her to him until she felt the warmth of his body.
“I told you,” he murmured, “I don’t want that from you.”
He whispered a few words. She thought they might be “May God forgive me” in the last instant before the knife was at her throat.
Copyright © 2010 by Susanne Alleyn