MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Yves Rencourt, the chandler’s apprentice, had lost his wig.
After the last customer left the shop, he searched through baskets of curling wicks and blocks of beeswax and teetering stacks of bills. Rien. It was nowhere to be found. And he needed the wig for tonight: he alone was to deliver candles for the Comte d’Astignac’s party, which would last until the sun came up. This was Yves’s chance to be noticed. To rise. And he didn’t want to show up wearing his own hair, looking ridiculous. He had to look promising. Like someone who could be Somebody.
At least his coat was good, he thought, as he lifted the dove-gray silk from its hook and shrugged it on. And voilà—there the damned wig was, its long white hair tied back with a black satin bow. He pulled the wig on and cocked an admiring eyebrow at his reflection in the window: he was no longer a tradesman’s apprentice. He was absolument parfait.
Into a canvas satchel he tucked his most precious candles, the ones he’d tinted the hazy apricots and violets of dawn. All he needed now was money for the carriage. From under the counter he heaved up the strongbox and lifted its lid to reveal a shining pile of coins: rivulets of gold louis and livres and tiny sous. Candles were good business. No matter how little bread there was, how few people bought snuffboxes or plumed hats, they all needed light. In the back, Maître Orland kept the cheap tallow candles that reeked of hooves. They sold more of those every day. But in the front of the shop, nestled in boxes and dangling from their wicks, were Yves’s own lovelies: wax candles, their colors like enchantments. A rose pink that made old women seem young, a watery gray that reminded him of the ocean. And one day soon—he hoped—he’d make candles for the queen.
For like himself, Marie Antoinette loved extraordinary things. Yves would make candles to suit her every fancy, candles she’d never even dreamed of. He’d be asked to make thousands, because in the endless rooms and halls of Versailles, candles were never lit twice.
From his coat pocket he pulled a leather purse and began to flick livres into the bag. Clink, clink, clink. But one coin made him pause. It was a louis d’or, seemingly no different from the others. Yet to someone who handled candles, always checking the soft wax for imperfections, it felt off. Holding it to the fading afternoon light, he saw nothing wrong. He put the gold coin between his teeth and bit it. It was as hard as any other. And yet. He found another louis and held one in each hand, weighing them. He closed his eyes. Yes—the one in his right hand was lighter. Still, who but a true craftsman such as himself would notice? He was about toss it back in the box when it twitched.
The louis d’or was moving.
Yves yelped and flung it onto the counter. The coin spun in a tight circle and dropped flat. As it lay there, its edges began to ripple, like beeswax in a flame.
“Mon Dieu,” he muttered. What in God’s name was happening?
The louis twisted upon itself and flipped over. The king’s face with its curved nose had vanished, the familiar crown and shield, too. And as Yves stared, the coin lost its roundness, thinning and separating until it looked like a bent harness buckle. He reached out a tentative finger to touch it.
It was a bent harness buckle.
With a cry, he reached for the strongbox. Mixed in with the coins was an ugly tin button, dented on one side, and a crooked piece of type, a letter Q. Worthless scraps of metal.
He remembered her exactly. He’d even flirted with her. Red hair, freckles across her sharp cheekbones. Hungry. Not that that excused it. How she’d done it he had no idea—but what a fool he was to take a gold louis from a girl in a threadbare cloak. If he hadn’t been dreaming of the figure he’d cut at the comte’s house, he would have thought twice. Idiot! Maître Orland was going to kill him.
He wrenched open the door and yelled into the crowded street. “Help! Police! We’ve been robbed!”
But Camille had already slipped away through the arches of an arcade, across a tiny cobbled square, down a narrow lane perfumed by the scent of fresh bread, and into the bakery, where she now stood. She set her heavy basket, filled with candles and a rind of cheese, on the floor between her feet.
She inhaled deeply. Heaven must be like this. Like piles of raisin-studded rolls, braided brioches that flaked a rain of buttery gold when you bit into them, baguettes as long as your arm and still warm inside, sweet pastries that made your mouth water. The women ahead of her took their time, complaining about the cost of bread.
“Don’t blame me,” the baker’s wife snapped. “Blame the weather! Blame the queen! She’d rather fill her wardrobe than her people’s bellies.”
“It’s true!” another woman grumbled. “Madame Déficit spends money like it’s going out of style. And how does she pay for it all?” The woman grimaced. “With our money! They’ll tax us even after we’re dead and in the ground.”
Camille’s fingers twitched with impatience. People complained about the king and queen and they complained about the nobles, even when there was absolutely nothing that could be done to change things. Her father the printer had called the nobles bloodsuckers, but even he’d needed their business.
Hurry. Soon it would be evening, shadows gathering in the city’s crooked places. Pickpockets would slink out, madams looking to trap young girls, men who didn’t keep their hands to themselves.
Camille nodded at the day-old loaves. “I’ll take one of those.” She hesitated. “And a sweet pastry, s’il vous plaît.”
Snugging her cloak around her shoulders, Camille stepped out into the lane. Over the rooftops of Paris, the sky hung like a lead curtain, and the air tasted of metal. This morning she’d found a skin of ice stretched over the water jug in the kitchen. But cold May or not, there was nothing for it; she had one last errand and the blurry sun was already sinking behind the towers of Notre-Dame. Leaving the lane for a busy street, Camille dodged piles of manure and pools of horse piss, not to mention whatever filth people tossed from their windows. To keep from gagging, she burrowed her nose into her worn cloak. It smelled faintly of her mother’s perfume.
Her pocket felt too large and empty, only a few sous wedged against its lining. With her fingertips, she traced the coins’ thin edges. Still round. She didn’t dare to take them out and count them, not on the street. There’d be enough for Alain’s wine.
As long as the coins didn’t change.
At the wine merchant’s, she chewed the edge of her fingernail, waiting for him to fill a wine bottle from a barrel. When she left, she kept her basket pressed close to her side. She avoided the quarter’s crumbling passageways, their entrances as narrow as the doors of tombs. She could almost feel the hands that waited there. Somewhere above her in the tilting buildings, a child sobbed.
As Camille turned the corner, a girl as young as her sister came running down the street. Her white face was rouged with hectic circles, her hair aflame, her eyebrows darkened to seduce, and her corset pulled tight to give curves to her child’s body. Under the dirty hem of her dress, bare feet flashed as she dodged shoppers and workmen.
“Stop, whore!” shouted a constable as he pushed through the crowd.
A prickling of fear made Camille pull her cloak up over her own red hair. But she couldn’t take her eyes from the half-dressed girl, running like a spreading fire. She was living the life Camille feared—her nightmares made flesh.
“You there!” the constable shouted at Camille. “Stop her!”
Camille shrank back against the wall. As the running girl dashed closer, Camille glimpsed the whites of her eyes in the half-dark. The raw leanness of her face, the bruises on her arms—and the tiny roll of bread she clutched in her hand. How many days could she make that last while her stomach churned with hunger? And then what? Camille felt in her pocket for her last few real sous.
“Thief!” yelled the constable. His face was wild with anger as the girl slipped away through the crowds.
It was too risky. Camille clenched her empty hand as the sadness welled up inside her. It was wrong not to help—but it was too dangerous. With the constable coming, there was nothing she could do. The horror of living on the streets was too big, a wall of fear that blocked out everything.
As the girl fled past, her scared eyes flicked to Camille’s.
Then both girls vanished into darkening Paris.
Copyright © 2019 by Gita Trelease.