The world of Paris is not a large one. There is much good and many good people in it, but also much evil. At the mature age of 23, the salon of my aunt, Madame de Tourvel, was all I knew of the world and, at that time, the only opening it afforded me. There, under the dripping candelabra and enveloped by fine conversation, was the velvet card table, upon which human folly was on display.
At first, I watched the proceedings in dismay, the mere thought of gambling being distasteful to me. The players showed no emotion, for a real gentleman must not display any feelings, even when all is lost. However, drawn gradually to these strange new surroundings, in which the loss of a fortune is treated with the same regard as a speck of dust, I soon resolved to play. This I was able to do, for I had inherited early an ancient title – I was now Baron Constantin de Valrois – a chateau in the country and, most importantly, a seemingly endless supply of sovereigns.
All was quiet as I approached the table; little stirred and a word was scarcely a breath. At first, the whole business was alien to me; I could only guess that money was staked on numbers, pair and impair, and types of card. I made up my mind to try my luck with two sovereigns. The hand was dealt and I lost. With a sickening feeling of indignation and yet somehow drawn inexorably to the game, I put another two on impair and this time won. Again and again I staked the whole amount and time after time I won. Within an hour my initial stake had increased 30-fold and I felt invincible. Tomorrow I would try my luck at the races, but for now – my appetite for the game sated – I took my leave.
Poverty is like other tribulations – it becomes ultimately bearable by poor and rich alike. That foetid river of despair and degradation that runs through the very heart of Paris is of no more consequence to the Parisian rich than the Seine. The young girl gazing earnestly at the grand ladies alighting from their vehicles outside the Opera de Gamier had no less desire than them to witness the spectacle within; it was merely a slip of fate that had reversed their roles. What becomes of this girl when the fashionable world disappears into the theatre? She slips away into the shadows whence she came and returns to the Quartier Latin.
The night is dark and the cold sharp, the sky a canopy of shimmering stars as the bohemian quarter of Paris awakens, a carousel of twirling, vibrant shades of light and laughter, but of wealth and poverty too. The girl stops in front of a dazzling shop window on the Rue de Mouffetard, shivering in her threadbare cloak. Her sunken eyes reflected in the glass have not yet lost the exquisite grace of innocence. Her name is Euphrasie, although how this came about is anyone’s guess, for she never knew her parents.
Here is the story of society’s squalid bargain: a human soul for a hunk of bread. 17 hours a day she stitched for a pittance, for poverty offers and society accepts. She turned away from the window and continued down the narrow street, stopping only to gaze at the crowd emerging from the Galte theatre. So immersed in the spectacle was she that she stumbled straight into the arms of an aristocratic young gentleman, who was coming down the street in the opposite direction.
Euphrasie in her solitude, like Constantin in his, was ready to be set alight. Fate, with a mysterious stroke, had destined them to meet in a look, like clouds colliding in a lightening-flash. So much has been made of the power of a glance it is now undervalued, but that is how people often fall in love. They gazed at each other transfixed and began to walk down the Rue de Plumet. They talked of everything and nothing, for the nattering of lovers usually means nothing to the rest. They did not enquire where this was taking them, but arranged instead to meet the next day and when the Saint-Medard clock struck twelve they parted. Alas, it is one of the strange imperatives of life that when, unbeknown to each other, a baron and a penniless young girl fall in love, it must take them somewhere.
I awoke the next day with an intense feeling of disquiet. The events of the previous night were still fresh in my mind and my soul was in turmoil. There was only one place for me to find true, if temporary solace – and she would be there too. Without further ado, I hurried to Longchamps in the Bois de Boulogne. On arriving, I made my way to a bookie and in a state of euphoria mixed with dread placed a bet of ten francs on a horse named ‘Le Reve de Crepuscule’. The horse was good, better I thought than its odds of ten to one, even though it was clearly not the favourite. As I hurried to the Grand Enclosure the race was already underway. The horses eventually got to the final furlong and I realised with a sickening jolt that mine was lagging behind the others. I could not bear to watch and when I next turned to look it had come in last and I had lost a seamstress’ monthly wage in less than five minutes.
With steely determination I convinced myself that I would win in the next race. The next one came and I lost, and the one after that, and the next one after that too. Like a madman I bet tens of francs, race after race. Time stood still and I was possessed, held captive by my vice in stronger manacles than those made of any earthly metal. The last race was imminent and I placed my final bet. Hardly knowing or caring what I had lost, or whom I said I would meet, I was convinced that my luck would change – it had to.
As the final race drew to a close, a shrill scream rent the cold air followed by a deathly hush, broken only by the growing thud of horses; hooves and thumping hearts. In all the commotion, a young girl had strayed into the path of the oncoming horses. Her emaciated body now lay mangled, the green grass stained a dark red. She had come to the racecourse looking for someone. Whom? Nobody knew. Her name? Nobody knew. For a while no one dared to come forward until the crowd suddenly parted for an aristocratic young gentleman, his face ashen. He knelt down in the bloody grass and clasped her trampled body to him, tears of anguish streaming down his face.
“Monsieur le Baron!” a disembodied voice was heard, but the words seemed distant. “Your horse – it won!” said the voice, as a hand was thrust forward with the winnings.