Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

To Capture What We Cannot Keep

A Novel

Beatrice Colin

Flatiron Books



February 1886


THE SAND ON THE Champ de Mars was powdered with snow. A huge blue-and-white-striped hot-air balloon swooned on its ropes in front of the École Militaire, the gondola tethered to a small wooden platform strung out with grubby yellow bunting. Three figures, two women and a man, hurried from a hired landau on the avenue de Suffren across the parade ground toward the balloon.

Attendez,” called out Caitriona Wallace. “Nous arrivons!

As she paused on the steps to wait for the other two, Cait’s vision spun with tiny points of light in a darkening fog. She had laced tight that morning, pulling until the eyeholes in her corset almost met, and now her chest rose and fell in shallow gasps as she tried to catch her breath—in, out, in and out.

“We made it,” said Jamie Arrol as he reached her. “That was a close thing.”

“Here are the tickets,” she told him. “You get on board. Your sister is just coming.”

In the wicker gondola twenty people waited impatiently, the men in bell-curve beaver hats, and the women—there were only two—in fur-lined traveling coats. But the balloon attraction wasn’t full, not on a cold winter morning with a sky so leaden it looked as if it might descend any moment, not at eleven o’clock in the morning on a Monday.

The ropes strained in the wind that blew up from the Seine, a wind that whipped the sand and the snow into a milky haze. The showground smelled of new rope and hot tar, of smoke blown from the charcoal brazier of the balloon, and underneath it all a note of something alcoholic. A flask, Cait thought, was being passed among the male passengers above. She could do with a little sip of something herself. Once on board, however, all would be well. She would not let herself imagine anything untoward, she would not visualize the gondola rising upward until it burst into flames or hurtling down until it smashed into pieces on the ground or floating away over the rooftops like Gambetta in 1871. No, she wouldn’t let her fear get the better of her. She had read the promotional leaflet thoroughly. They would be tethered to the platform by a long chain. It was quite safe. And when they had made their ascent and reached a height of three hundred meters, she would look out and see the whole world clearly.

“Come on!” she cried out to her charge. “They’re all waiting!”

As Alice Arrol finally approached the steps, her pace became little more than leisurely. A small group of Parisian ladies were standing at the base of the platform, their parasols raised to stop the wind blowing their hats away. After throwing the ladies a glance, Alice’s face stiffened into an expression that suggested nonchalance.

“Actually,” she said as she adjusted her gloves and stared up into the overcast sky, “I think I’ll stay here.”

Not five minutes earlier Alice had been almost ecstatic with excitement. Cait found it hard to hide her dismay.

“Are you sure? Wasn’t the balloon excursion your idea?”

Alice’s eyes widened in warning and her mouth curled into a small smile.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She laughed. “I wouldn’t dream of setting foot in such an undignified contraption!”

Alice’s cheeks were flushed and her ringlets had turned into a golden frizz around her face. She had kept her hair color, the blond not turning dark. It made her look younger than she really was; her skin, nursery-pink and chalk-white with a touch of blue around the eyes. She was nineteen but often taken for much younger. Cait felt a rush of affection toward her. She still wore her newly acquired adulthood badly, like an oversize coat that she hoped to grow into.

The balloon operators started to untie the ropes. Cait glanced up at the lip of the basket. There was no sign of Jamie. She would have to tell him of the change of plan. She turned back to Alice.

“Will you wait here?”

“Are you going to go without me?” Alice asked.

At that point, the idea hadn’t even occurred to Cait. Of course she should stay behind; she was a companion, paid to accompany and supervise Alice and her brother, Jamie Arrol. Also, at thirty-one, she was far too old to be spontaneous. Worst of all, heights, steep ascents, and theater seats in the upper circle all terrified her. And yet, as she had told herself in the carriage on the drive to the showground, she would get the chance only once in her lifetime and so she must take advantage.

“Maybe I should,” she said. “Would you mind?”

“No, don’t remain on my account.”

“And you’d be safe? You wouldn’t move an inch from this spot.”

“I won’t be seduced, I promise. Just go, Mrs. Wallace.”

“The tickets are already paid for,” Cait called as she climbed toward the outstretched hand of the balloon handler. “It would be a terrible waste if we didn’t use them. Your uncle would be outraged! Mortified! Can you imagine?”

She looked back just as Alice laughed out loud, then quickly covered her mouth with her hand. Ironically, for a girl who spent so long perfecting her expressions in the mirror, she was prettiest like that, when she forgot herself.

When the last few sandbags had been tossed over the side and the ropes coiled, the pilot leaned on a lever, air rushed into the brazier, the fire roared, and the balloon began to rise with the upward momentum of an air bubble through water. Cait shut her eyes and held tight to the wicker edge of the basket as the balloon ascended. Despite everything, it was just glorious.

Eight years earlier Cait had had no idea that she would end up here, rising into the sky above Paris, practically weightless, impossibly high. She had been married, settled, grounded. Her husband, Saul Wallace, was handsome and debonair, their home in Glasgow was large and comfortable; their shared future stretched out in front of them like the red roll of a carpet. There would be children, holidays, anniversaries.

Saul was just thirty-two when his train left one side of the River Tay and failed to reach the other. It was three days after Christmas, December 1879. As Cait sat beside the fire and opened a novel, she had not known—how could she—that at that moment their life together was ending, that the Tay Bridge had collapsed and Saul Angus Wallace was drowning in black-water currents beneath several tons of hissing iron.

The hot-air balloon had reached the end of its chain and came to a sudden, jolting halt. She opened her eyes. The brazier roared, the balloon still floated in the air, the world was as she had left it; Paris below and the sky above. For a moment she focused on breathing. She wouldn’t let herself think about the empty space beneath the gondola. She wouldn’t imagine the altitude they had reached. The other passengers rushed from one side to the other, clearly unconcerned that they were suspended by nothing more than hot air. No one else was fearful, no one else stood, as she did, several feet from the basket’s rim in the grip of a private terror.

“What a view!” Jamie Arrol was peering over the edge, almost hysterical with happiness. “Come and look.”

“I will,” she said. “In a minute.”

He turned and noticed that she was alone.

“Miss Arrol changed her mind,” Cait explained.

“She missed out.” He shrugged. “There’s the Panthéon … the Arc de Triomphe … and over there … I think that must be Notre-Dame! Look!”

Cait steeled her resolve, then cautiously, tentatively, hesitantly peered over the edge. And there, far below, were Baron Haussmann’s wide boulevards that followed the line of the old walls of the city, the green blot of the Bois de Boulogne, the pump of black smoke from the factories in the south, the star spokes radiating from the Place de l’Étoile, and, closer, the Place du Trocadéro. And there were lines of carriages as tiny as black beetles, people as minute as ants, the city as small and regular as a set of children’s stone building blocks placed on a painted sheet.

“Well?” said Jamie.

The image blurred, her head began to pound; it was too much. She stepped back.

“You’re shaking!” Jamie laughed. “Wait until I tell my sister.”

“I’m fine,” she told him. “At least, I’ll be fine in a minute. Go, go and make the most of it.”

Despite the heat from the brazier, the air was far colder up here than on the showground. Her hands were indeed trembling, but it wasn’t just the chill. What scared her most was not the thought that she might fall out of the gondola, but the sense that she might be seized at any moment by an overwhelming compulsion to jump. Since her husband’s death she had often felt this panic, as if she existed in a liminal space, half in and half out of the world.

In the quiver of the heat coming from the fire, she tried to focus on something, anything. She heard a small click and turned. A man was standing behind a small wooden box on the other side of the basket, his face absorbed in thought. He wore a softly knotted bow tie and, unlike the rest of the passengers, wasn’t wearing a hat. As if he felt her gaze, he blinked and looked around. For no more than a fraction of a second, their eyes met. Cait’s heart accelerated, a rapid knocking against a solid wall of whalebone and wool. She swallowed and glanced away. What on earth did she think she was doing? What kind of a lady returned a man’s gaze? She turned and sought other, safer distractions. Next to her a party of Americans were discussing restaurants.

“Five francs for an apple on a plate,” one of the men was saying. “It was daylight robbery.”

“But the wine was very reasonable,” his companion pointed out.

“That may well be, but they saw me coming. I aim to avoid dining at our hotel for the remainder of my trip. The French have a nose for gullibility, so I hear.”

She was suddenly aware that the man without the hat had come to her side of the balloon and was looking out across the river toward the north of the city. She concentrated wholeheartedly on listening to the Americans’ accounts of terrible food and horrendous hotel experiences. But she was conscious of him, of his proximity, of the wooden box he was carrying, of his hair swept back from his forehead falling in loose, dark curls over his collar, of the rise of his frozen breath mingling with her own.

“Fleas!” one voice rang out. “Fleas everywhere!”

“I had bedbugs,” another agreed. “They even got into my toothbrush.”

The man took another, smaller wooden box out of the first box and carefully attached it to three metal legs. It looked like some sort of photographic device. Photography was the new craze in Paris, and she had seen dozens of men carrying those mahogany and brass boxes, strolling up and down the Quais or setting up in the Luxembourg Gardens.

She could see now that he was slightly older than he had first appeared, maybe around forty. His dark hair was flecked with gray, his coat was finely cut and his shoes polished; he looked cared for. And yet there was something in the way he moved, in the slant of his shoulders and the way he took up space in the world that she recognized. He was a man who was, or had been, lonely.

As she watched, he opened the box and extended a small concertina shape from the front. And then he stepped to the side of the gondola and leaned over. Cait felt a surge, the momentum of falling, headlong, into nothingness. Of its own accord, her hand reached out and grabbed his arm. He turned.

“Madame?” he said.

“Excuse me,” she blurted out in French. “But you looked as if you were about to—”

Cait opened her mouth but couldn’t say the word.

“Throw myself over the edge?” he asked in French.

She blinked at him.

“I was going to say ‘fall.’”

“Not today, but thank you for your concern,” he said.

He glanced down to where her hand still gripped his sleeve. It was her left hand, bare now of the wedding band she used to wear.

“I’m so sorry,” she said as she let him go.

“Not at all. Are you all right?”

“I have a fear of heights,” she explained.

How ridiculous that must sound, she thought suddenly, how lame, how patently untrue, in a hot-air balloon of all places. His eyes, however, were on her face, his gaze unwavering. He wasn’t laughing.

“I spend a lot of time in the air,” he said.

“Really? What are you, an aerialist?”

He laughed and his face lifted. It was not, she decided, an unpleasant face.

“Close,” he said. “Are you enjoying it?”

“It certainly is an experience,” she replied. “I’ve never been in a hot-air balloon before. I’m not sure I would again.”

“I rather like it. The sensation that one is attached to the Earth only by a chain. And now, if you will excuse me for one moment, I must take another picture.”

He moved his camera toward the edge, looked through a tiny hole in the back, and adjusted the concertina in front. Once he was satisfied, he turned a dial, reached into his case, found a flat black box, and attached it to the camera’s back.

“You’re English?” he said as he pulled a thin metal plate from inside the box.

“Scottish,” she replied.

He smiled, then consulted his pocket watch.

“I’m exposing the plate,” he explained. “It must be kept very still for twenty seconds exactly.”

She held her breath as he counted out the seconds.

“Voilà!” he said as he wound the shutter closed again. “Just in time.”

She looked up and noticed that a thin mist had begun to descend, enveloping the balloon in white.

“We’ll have to imagine the view instead,” she suggested.

He turned and gave her his full attention again.

“Then imagine a tower,” he said. “The tallest tower in the world. It will be built right here on the Champ de Mars for the World’s Fair, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. You won’t have to come up in a balloon anymore.”

“That!” she said. “But everyone says it’s going to be awful, just a glorified pylon.”

He laughed and began to put away his camera.

“Or a truly tragic lamppost,” he said.

There was a sudden tug and the balloon dropped a couple of feet. The passengers let out a cry of alarm, followed quickly by a show of amusement. Maybe they weren’t all quite as fearless as they appeared.

“That was short,” said Jamie, appearing suddenly at her elbow. “And you can’t see anything now. Not sure it was worth the price of the ticket.”

“You should take the steamboat, a bateau-mouche,” the Frenchman suggested. “The route from Charenton to Auteuil is the best and only costs twenty centimes. It takes you through the whole city by the river.”

The two men began to chat, as men do, about professions and prospects. Cait felt a spike of disappointment; she wished that Jamie hadn’t come looking for her.

“You’re an engineer,” said Jamie. “What a coincidence! You might have heard of my uncle, William Arrol. Our company is working on the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh. And we’ve almost finished one across the Tay, to replace the one that collapsed.”

He glanced briefly in Cait’s direction. The balloon was yanked down another couple of feet. Something within her plummeted in tandem. She had forgotten herself. She was thirty-one years old; she’d had her chance.

“What are your current projects?” Jamie asked the engineer.

“A tower made of iron,” he said, and smiled at Cait.

“Not Eiffel’s tower?” said Jamie. “The one they’re going to build somewhere around here?”

“I designed it,” he replied. “Together with my colleague, Maurice Koechlin. We work for Gustave Eiffel.”

Cait covered her mouth with her hand. Beneath her fingertips her cheeks burned.

“You should have told me,” she said. “There I was, calling it a truly tragic lamppost.”

Jamie glanced at her. Clearly she had spoken out of turn. The Frenchman, however, didn’t seem offended, but amused.

“I called it that, not you. Today I was trying to take some photographs of the site for our archive,” he explained. “We start digging the foundations next week.”

“Really! And how long do you expect construction to take?” Jamie asked.

“It must be ready for the Great Exhibition, so two years at the most. And once she stands, you will be able to see her from all over the city.”

“Impressive! You know, I’m training to be an engineer myself.”

Cait was surprised to hear Jamie say it. His uncle had paid for school, for university, and when he had dropped out, he had given him an apprenticeship in his company. A directorship was promised, but first Jamie would have to prove himself, working his way up, like his uncle had, from the shop floor. He had learned the basics of civil engineering by drawing endless plans and drilling rivet holes, but he had not shone, coming in late and going home after lunch. After several strained conversations with his uncle, it was agreed that he would take a sabbatical to think things over. While traveling for the last six months around Europe, he had considered careers such as wine merchant or chocolate importer.

“I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name?” Jamie asked.

“Émile Nouguier,” the Frenchman replied.

“So if you designed it, why isn’t the tower named after you?” Cait asked.

“Eiffel bought the patent from us,” he replied. “And now as well as building it, he is paying for most of it.”

“I heard it was going to cost him millions of francs,” said Jamie. “Is that true?”

“It is. Although he hopes he will recoup most of it through ticket sales.”

The gondola landed with a thump on the sand of the parade ground. The American passengers gave a spontaneous round of applause.

“It’s been a pleasure, Monsieur Nouguier,” Jamie said. “Is your wife on board?”

“Alas, there is no one that fits that description.”

“We’re in the same boat, then,” Jamie said. “You must meet my sister.”

Émile Nouguier bowed in Cait’s direction.

“No, I’m just a family friend,” she said. “Caitriona Wallace.”

“Forgive me,” he said softly in French. “Caitriona.”

A small jolt raced through her. He had addressed her by her first name. It was better, she decided, to ignore it. It was better to appear oblivious to his overfamiliarity.

“Well,” she said, “good luck with your tower.”

“Thank you,” he replied.

Almost all the passengers had disembarked. The crew were coiling ropes and piling sandbags. Water was thrown over the basket of hot coals.

“Mrs. Wallace!” said Jamie, standing on the platform steps, waiting to help her down. “Can’t wait all day!”

Alice was standing at the bottom, her face doll-blank. The ladies with the parasols had gone.

“How was it?” she asked.

“You should have come,” Cait replied.

“There’s someone I want you to meet,” Jamie called out from behind.

Alice looked at Cait in horror. Who on earth, her face seemed to say, could be worth meeting on a hot-air balloon attraction?

“May I present my sister,” Jamie said once the engineer had reached the bottom of the steps, “Miss Alice Arrol. This is Monsieur Nouguier, the highly esteemed engineer.”

Jamie was hardly subtle; the young unmarried sister, the blatant advertising of her availability, the implication that Nouguier might be of the right social standing to take an interest. But if the engineer was aware of any of this, his face didn’t reveal it.

“Mademoiselle,” he said with a small bow.

Enchantée,” Alice replied.

There was a small, expectant silence.

“How long are you staying in Paris?” he asked Jamie.

“Just until the weekend. We’re on a Grand Tour, of sorts. After meandering through the Low Countries, we spent too long in Rome. We had to miss Venice entirely. But our stay in Paris has been thoroughly worthwhile now we’ve met you.”

Cait was painfully aware, as she had been many times in Paris, of their poor mastery of social etiquette, of how clear it was that they had come from a less sophisticated place. Their manners were parochial, so parochial that they didn’t even realize it.

“If you have time before you leave, I would be happy to receive your call.” Nouguier handed Jamie his card. “As an engineer you might be interested in seeing the workshop in Levallois-Perret.”

“I would indeed,” said Jamie. “Thank you.”

Once Émile had taken his leave, Alice rolled her eyes.

“Please,” she said, “don’t drag us to a workshop.”

“Do you know who that was?” Jamie whispered. “He works with Gustave Eiffel, the Gustave Eiffel. And he’s unattached!”

“Jamie!” she said. “Before you start your matchmaking, I’d like to point out that he wasn’t even wearing a hat!”

“Shh,” said her brother. “He might hear you.”

But Émile Nouguier was already halfway across the parade grounds, heading toward the Seine, his figure a dark stroke against the sand. As Cait watched, it started to snow, and within a minute he began to disappear, fading from black to gray to nothing at all.


Copyright © 2016 by Beatrice Colin