Fabien and Stefan (Fabien narrates)
Some have said that there are advantages to being a younger son. The older son gets all the land, but the younger son has more freedom. Nothing was more important to me.
My older brother did not understand why I wanted freedom—I didn’t realize it myself at the time.
“Why do you want to go to Paris?” he asked me when, after our father’s death, I applied to him for money. Teasingly, he added, “Do you want to see all the fine ladies of the court?”
This was a standing joke with him, my supposed finicky taste in women. I had reached the age of twenty-two without ever having had a sweetheart of any kind. My sisters teased me about an acquaintance of theirs who (they said) made eyes at me and whose heart they accused me of breaking. Did I think I was so good-looking that I could have any girl I wanted without troubling myself to be polite?
Well: I was good-looking; I did not know why I should deny it. Naturally, I did not say that to my sisters, but I did say that the girl in question was not exactly the reigning beauty of the Loire valley. I would not go so far as to say she was ugly, but surely, I could do better than that?
My sisters went into gales of laughter, and from that day onward, my arrogance was added to my being highly selective as a subject for teasing.
How I longed to get away from them! I wanted to leave and needed to get away from country life, with its few neighbors and its dearth of entertainment. By the time I asked my brother for money, I did not know exactly what I wanted, but I had a fairly good idea of what I did not want.
“Here, take this,” my brother said to me, handing over a small bag in which coins clinked against each other. “It’s not much, I’m afraid. I don’t know why you want to live in Paris when you can live here so much better on so much less. Be sure to call on our cousins in the Marais as soon as you can. The Vicomte is said to be easily offended.” These cousins were the Vicomte d’Amboise, which consisted of an elderly bachelor, and those of his family who lived with him—his widowed niece Louise and her young son.
My sisters wished me good luck on finding a wife suited to those fastidious tastes of mine; and two days later, I set out, with the servant Jacque walking behind me and carrying my things.
Jacque was able to talk with other servants along the road, with the result that by the time we reached Paris, we had a guide to show us the city. It was summertime, and we were glad to stop at an inn on the edge of the city, where they furnished us with water both to drink and to wash off the dust of the road, and then with a simple meal. The proprietor himself served us. He was full of a place called the Café Alexandre, which he had visited for the first time earlier that day. Apparently, it was the newest place to see and be seen. While I was wondering what the word café meant, he asked us if we had ever tasted coffee.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It is the most exquisite drink from the East that tastes like nothing else. It is rich and yet somewhat bitter—but somehow the bitterness adds to rather than detracts from the flavor.” He had bought a small amount, ground, from the Café Alexandre, and he insisted on brewing us some. With the enthusiasm of a true aficionado, he said that if he were looking for new quarters—which he wasn’t—he would look for rooms near the Café Alexandre, so he could have coffee every day.
Jacque and I and our guide, Luc, laughed at the man’s enthusiasm as we walked on into the great city, but in the end, we were so curious that we ended up visiting the Café Alexandre. By the time we got there, night had fallen.
Jacque and Luc soon got into conversation with a waiter. He was clearly giving them directions of some kind.
“He knows of some rooms that might be just what you’re looking for,” Jacque explained.
“Attic rooms,” the waiter said apologetically. “But I understand that may be what the gentleman requires.”
“Admirable,” I said. “But we will have some coffee first.”
We were glad to sit down. I looked around at the café and marveled. First, I marveled at the great number of people who managed to crowd themselves in. All of Paris was like that to me, though—country-bred as I was, I was struck everywhere by the density of the population. The café was also remarkable for its mingling of the classes. I had never seen anything like this before. There were bakers with loaves of bread for sale and apprentices who had no money to pay for a drink and were standing round as if waiting for someone to pay. Up the social scale were master craftsman—printers showing around their latest pamphlets, tailors showing off their latest coats—and then there were lawyers’ clerks and such-like, and the lawyers themselves—I guessed that was what they were by their inkpots and pens and long rolls of parchment, and by the arguments going on around them—and then there were gentlemen, the members of the upper class, in silk suits and stockings and long, curly brown wigs.
One of these gentlemen caught my eye with his, which was bluer than any eye I had ever seen before. This blue-eyed man held my gaze for some moments, long enough to signal to me that his glance was not an accident. He was perhaps the finest gentleman there, judging by the white lace that overflowed his bright blue vest. This lace was of a quality I had never seen before, and it was as clean and fresh as if he had just put it on for the first time. What was even more remarkable was that his skin was as white as his lace—a smooth porcelain like complexion, as beautiful as it was strange. As he held my gaze with his eyes, which grew more intensely blue every moment, I began to feel embarrassed—yet it was a pleasurable sort of embarrassment. I did not look away. I was confused but somehow thrilled as well. These were the sort of looks that I had seen men and women exchange. And with that thought I realized what the most remarkable thing of all was: there were no women in the café.
Was this the paradise I had come to Paris unknowingly seeking?
I suddenly became very tired. It took too much effort to go on gazing into those unearthly eyes. Jacque and I left the café and crossed the street, and just around the corner we found the sign of the mortar and pestle that marked an apothecary’s business. The apothecary himself was just closing shop, and when he was done, he showed us upstairs to the rooms.
They truly were nothing more than an attic, fairly large but entirely unpainted, and unadorned in every way. There was a bed and a table and two chairs, and aside from a cupboard and a washstand, that was all the furniture. For Jacque there was a minute room that doubled as a broom closet. I stepped across my own room and looked out of a dormer window. All was black in the night, but since there was no traffic abroad at that hour, I could hear people at the café, around the corner. I heard a strange, far-away sound of music and clinking glasses and laughter.
Was I happy I had come to live as a poor man in Paris? I could not have expressed how happy I was.
There were no curtains on the windows, so I awoke in the morning with the sun. Leaving Jacque asleep, I went down the stairs and into the street, seeing it for the first time. Few people were abroad at that hour, and the shops were all closed. However, the Café Alexandre was open. I went in gladly and asked a waiter what time they had opened. He told me that the café never closed. As soon as the last stragglers of the night had gone home, the first of the men taking their wares to market arrived, wanting coffee and a shot of brandy to go with it. Could he get some brandy for me?
I declined and said I wanted only coffee and rolls. A hungry young man of twenty-two can eat rolls almost without number, so while I ate, I had plenty of time to observe the life of the café. Men came in and discussed the news of the day. I heard “the king” mentioned several times, and the name of his present mistress, and I caught mention of a duel to take place in the Bois de Boulogne, of various tennis matches, and of the latest opera to be put on. I listened to everything with great interest, but what I was really doing there was waiting for my gentleman of the blue eyes and immaculate lace. I sat most of the day waiting in the café for him, getting up to take a stroll round the streets and to see that Jacque was provisioning us properly.
Our guide from yesterday turned up—the one who sowed us first the Café Alexandre and then the rooms I was letting. For a few sous he showed me some of the sights of Paris. Despite my exhaustion of yesterday, we walked as far as the Ile de la Cité to see the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame, and to climb the bell tower to see the city of Paris laid out before us. It is hard to describe how I, a farm boy who had never seen anything higher than the roof of the parish church, felt when I saw the full magnificence of Paris.
When we got back to the café, I paid and dismissed my guide, and, giving up for today on my gentleman in blue, I was ready to climb the stairs to my attic. The sun had gone down about an hour ago, though, and I thought I would have a brandy before going home. I turned to look for a waiter, and there he was, wearing the same blue breeches and vest, the same lavender coat, the long brown wig, and the lace at his neck that was as white as the first snow. And he was looking at me with those bright blue eyes. Staring, really. Not to be intimidated, I stared back. Finally, he smiled. With one hand, he indicated a table with a chessboard set up upon it. I took a chair and we sat down opposite each other.
“I am a habitué here. You are the guest and must take the white” were the first words he ever said to me.
Since I was young, I thought myself to be an excellent chess player, ready to match my skills with the best the capital had to offer. I had often played against my sisters and my brother and beaten them all. However, my father would never take me on—and that should have told me something.
This gentleman checkmated me in two moves. He did not actually laugh at me, but he did smile out of the corner of his mouth. We played another game and this time he checkmated me in three moves.
“Sir, I perceive that I am out of my class,” I said. “I thought myself a good player at home, but I had only my family to play against me, and I see now that what we called chess was very different from the game you play. I am not worthy to play against you, sir.”
It was clear that the gentleman had enjoyed dominating me in game after game. He was pleased by my tribute, however, and he smiled at me now in a more indulgent way. “I suppose you must learn from me, then”; and he proceeded to show me a series of maneuvers. I would have felt foolish except that he so obviously enjoyed instructing me.
A waiter stopped at our table and said, “Milord?”
“Two tankards of ale,” my gentleman—my lord—answered without raising his eyes from the chessboard.
Now, assuredly, I would learn his name.
“If you buy me ale, you must know my name,” I said boldly. “I am Fabien Levesque” I waited.
“Stefan, Baron of Vitré.”
There, it was on the table: if he were an aristocrat, he would have heard the name Levesque. Although I was no better dressed than a tradesman and Stefan was clearly a member of the court, we were both members of the aristocracy. Things between us were now put on a new footing. We could associate openly. We might even visit each other without risking suspicion from anyone. It was a great step forward, and I began to hope that I would see Stefan again even after this night was over.
When our ale arrived, we drank the health of the king. I drank freely while Stefan sipped. By the time I got to the bottom of my tankard, I could feel my face getting warm—the ale was strong. Notably, however, Stefan’s face remained that uncanny white. I wondered if he were ill.
We lingered over the chessboard long into the night. Other men joined us to watch and to learn from Stefan. I gave up my seat to a man who wanted to play, and Stefan finished him off in a matter of minutes. I couldn’t help observing that Stefan had given me much more leeway—had allowed me to lose much more slowly—as if he had enjoyed my company and wanted to keep it. He beat several other gentlemen. By then it was quite late.
“Come, let me take you back to your rooms,” Stefan said. “Are they far from here?”
“No, just around the corner,” I said.
“Nonetheless, it is pitch dark, and you do not know how dangerous Paris can be at night. My carriage is waiting.” He made a gesture to a servant who was sitting on the sidewalk outside of the café.
I did not want to look like some effeminate coward who could not be trusted to walk around the corner by himself, so I protested.
Stefan ignored my protest and repeated, “You do not know Paris. Come.” He put down his tankard, and I noticed, with considerable surprise, that it was full. Those sips had been pretend: he had drunk nothing.
Stefan brushed the servant cruely aside and helped me into his carriage himself. He lifted me as easily as if I had been a cat. When he got in, he brushed his knee against mine. An accident, no doubt. However, the carriage was big, and there was no need for him to sit so close to me.
“This is it,” I said when we came to the sign of the mortar and pestle.
“Did the apothecary give you a key?” Stefan asked, and I had to admit I had not thought to ask.
“Here, give me that lantern,” he said to his coachman; and by its light, we picked up dirt clods from the street and threw them at every window we could reach. After a time, my landlord, the apothecary, appeared in his dressing gown, rubbing his eyes.
“Good night, my friend,” said Stefan, and he tipped his hat to me and was gone.
The apothecary had taken Stefan’s measure, so he scolded me very little for waking him up. “I will have a key made for your lordship,” he said.
“I’m not a lord. But I will be obliged.”
I ought to have gone to visit my cousin d’Amboise the next day, but I could not pull myself away from the Café Alexandre. I knew I was making an idiot of myself, but there I stayed, as fixed as if I had had a meeting planned. I played chess. I played cards. I listened to men talk politics, which was all new to me; at first the only name I recognized was that of the king, Louis. At last, as the sun waned, I ordered brandy. What a jackass I had been to suppose that that fine gentleman, Baron Vitré, had nothing better to do with his time than to hang around in a café with an infatuated young man! Didn’t I have more important things to do? I asked myself angrily as I drank another brandy. If he showed up, he would know I had been waiting for him, and the power imbalance between us would weigh even more heavily on his side. I didn’t even know if he had these kinds of feelings for other men. What a young jackass I was!
Thus I spoke to myself as I consumed my third large brandy. When it was empty, I sat the glass down and stood up—and the next thing I knew, I was grabbing at the table, and there was a crash as the dishes hit the floor. Everybody looked at me, of course.
“Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it” said a voice in my ear. Stefan’s voice. I turned quickly, and our faces were so close that we could have kissed. For a long moment, neither of us moved. I was staring into the depths of his blue eyes and seeing thoughts and images I had only seen before in my own mind.
The proprietor came forward, and Stefan moved his face away from mine, circled my bicep with his hand, and told the proprietor he would pay for everything. He brought out a gold coin that would have paid for everything many times over. The proprietor smiled and took it, and the café swirled backed into its customary amusements. Stefan was still holding my arm. I was stock still, afraid that if I attempted any move, my knees would buckle.
At last Stefan dropped my arm and moved away. He smiled in a quite ordinary way and said in a quite ordinary voice, “Did you do your duty and visit your cousin today?”
I blushed. “No, I’m afraid Cousin Geoffrey will have to wait one more day.”
“And who is this Cousin Geoffrey? Is he a Chaumont?”
“No, Geoffrey d’Amboise.”
“The vicomte?” Stefan said in surprise. “I know him well. Let us call on him together.”
“You mean tomorrow?”
“I mean tonight. He keeps late hours. Lately he has gotten an idea into his head that he dislikes crowds, so now he sits at home of an evening with no more company than his silly niece. He’s decided that he’s going to read all the books in his library—which is an exceptionally dull one—so he’s probably nodding into a volume of Euclid right now. He’ll be glad to see us.”
We got into Stefan’s carriage, and he held my hand as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do. It was as cold as milk on a winter morning, but I decided I did not care. There had to be an explanation—some rare malady—and Stefan would explain when the time was right. I laid my head on his broad, strong shoulder.