It was the golden hour when Madam Thérèse de Dillon, still in the elaborate gown she wore for her husband’s meeting with his Viennese investors, finally collapsed on her overstuffed chaise longue and received her favorite guest.
Sophie, hardly twenty and in a very simple white dress, came in with a frown, but when her eyes met Mme de Dillon’s, she smiled, if somewhat shyly.
The girl had been sent to Paris from her parent’s vast estate in the country, and since Mme de Dillon had known her parents for years, she had taken the girl under her wing and been charmed by her curiosity and wide eyes.
As she often did when they met, Sophie knelt next to the chaise, her dress pooling around her fair and petite form.
Mme de Dillon smiled broadly at her confidant and muse. Oh, how the girl doted on her and oh how she relished the rose color of her cheeks, and her gold-flecked brown eyes and chestnut hair. Mme de Dillon was never happier than when Sophie knelt beside her.
“My little bird, flown back so soon? I just saw you two days ago! Yet you are even more beautiful than the last time I laid my eyes on you,” Mme de Dillon said sweetly.
Sophie was, for a moment, hypnotized by Mme de Dillon’s extravagant gown. A masterpiece in robin’s egg blue and white lace. As lovely as it was, though, it seemed merely an ornate frame for her lady’s exquisite heart shaped face, the majestic pearl and sapphire necklace, and the generous neckline which dipped down, exposing skin like fresh milk that nearly overflowed.
“Oh, my lady, I’ve been so anxious all day and now to see you, it is as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” she said, taking Mme de Dillon’s hands in hers and kissing the palms, then holding her lady’s cool hands to her feverish forehead.
“My sweet little bird, what could be the matter? What has put you in this state?”
Sophie looked away suddenly, her eyes cast to the floor.
“My lady, I… I’m not sure how to say this to you. I bring such dire news! I wish it were not me that was the messenger, for when you hear this, surely the lips that passed this news on to you will be accursed to you!”
Mme de Dillon took Sophie’s chin in her hand and brought the girl’s eyes back to her own.
“Nothing could sour my love for your lips, my sweetest. Come, you have visited me and not even given me a proper hello,” she said and gave the girl a kiss on each cheek, each lingering, and then the slightest peck on her lips.
They both paused there, eyes closed, Mme de Dillon still holding the girl’s chin.
“Oh, my lady, but I have something terrible to tell you. It must be said. It is your husband, my lady-”
“Maurice? Is he ill?”
Sophie looked down and took Mme de Dillon’s hands in hers again and considered their friendship, which had been so dear to her, and took a deep breath to gather her courage.
“No, my lady, not ill, not in body at least, though I fear for his soul!”
“His soul? Oh, do go on dear, what news do you speak of?”
“My lady, I was walking home two nights ago from my harpsichord lessons and was surprised to see M de Dillon near Rue de Rome. I was curious why he was in that area at that time of the evening, but I was also happy to run into him, and I thought I might say hello. As I got closer, though, I saw he was turning into an alley. It was then I noticed he was with a woman, a young woman, perhaps my age, though dressed somewhat fantastically-”
“Oh? Well, Maurice has so many students and correspondences, not to mention the fans his work! He is much loved by the young people of the city.”
“Oh, but my lady, when I made my way to the alley and when I looked in, I saw that they were embracing behind a theatre. A single streetlamp from afar seemed to cast a spotlight on them, and I was both horrified and hypnotized by their entwined bodies.”
Mme de Dillon raised an eyebrow at this, but patted the girl’s hand comfortingly.
“Yes, well, Maurice is a generous soul, with his words, deeds, and his affections.”
“Oh, but my lady! They kissed!”
“Maurice kisses everyone, as do I! We are familiar people, perhaps to our detriment. Did I not touch my lips to yours only moments ago?”
Sophie grew flustered as she was convinced her lady did not understand what she was telling her.
“But my lady, it was not a kiss of friendship, for it lingered on and on! It was the kiss of a lover. Though I dare say, even lovers do not linger so long on each other’s lips.”
The Mme patted Sophie’s hand once more and chuckled. “Now, now, what sad lovers you have seen that do not linger on each other’s lips for hours,” she said with a somewhat wicked smile that made Sophie feel even more fire in her cheeks.
“But my lady! Before my eyes and in the open, he pulled the laces of her bodice and freed her bosom!”
“Yes, well, perhaps she was feeling faint. If I remember, it was very warm that night.”
“But, my lady! He took her breast in his hand and caressed it!”
“Maurice is a learned man. Perhaps he was examining her. Perhaps she had some ailment.”
“But my lady, he did suckle at her breasts and hungrily moan into them!”
“Ah,” the lady said, though her smile did not fade and if anything became even wider.
“Well, little bird, I’m sorry if what you saw frightened or confused you. My husband can, at times, become too bold and let his passions carry him away, even in a public alley. I’m quite aware of where he was that night and what he was doing.”
Sophie was dumbfounded. “You knew of his indiscretion?”
“Of course, I knew. Discretion is sadly not his strong suit, but he and I are partners in passion. In art, in food, in drink, and in love. I knew of his dalliance with that woman, I believe she is a singer, though her name escapes me at the moment.”
Sophie looked at her in shock. Mme pulled her into an embrace.
“Oh, my dear sweet little bird. All of life is not what the nuns tell you, and your books describe. We may have titles, but Maurice and I have bohemian hearts. You know that! You’ve seen the way we travel and have adventures. Adventures you’ve said you longed for! Well, we also have adventures of the heart and of the body. Is that so hard to imagine?”
Sophie looked up at her with huge thoughtful eyes. She was trying to understand, but she’d been raised so differently, and she had idolized her lady’s marriage to M Maurice.
“Oh, Madame, I’m so confused. I haven’t slept thinking of what I saw. I wanted to run away, but I was mesmerized. I couldn’t look away! All I’ve said, that wasn’t all. Perhaps you know this too, but what happened next shocked me the most.”
Mme de Dillon cradled young Sophie and rocked her and kissed her cheek, whispering, “then tell me everything. Exorcise the memory and find comfort in my ear as you have so many times.”
Sophie closed her eyes. The warmth of Mme de Dillon’s familiar arms and the scent of her powder and perfume claimed her. She remembered the sight of the lovers in the alley, so sordid and shocking.
“He relished her breasts. His smile was almost rictus as he fondled them and cradled them. She seemed amused by his worship of them, and she laughed as he had his way with her. Then, suddenly, as if they remembered they had little time to dawdle, he dropped to his knees, and in a flurry of gowns and petticoats, he buried his face between her legs and was nearly completely covered by her dress!”
Mme de Dillon’s smile widened, and she tried to repress a laugh.
“Ah, yes, Maurice is somewhat predictable in his predilections. When given his choice, he will always pick that specific dessert.”
Sophie’s eyebrows furled.
“I don’t understand. She moaned, and her head fell back, and it looked as if she was in some tremendous pain and then, strangest of all, she sang. She sang from that opera you took me to, that Magic Flute. Just one little bit. She sang as he pushed her against the wall and did, well, whatever he was doing under her dress. And when they were done, she was bright red and laughing as he got up and kissed her. Then they were off, into the theatre from the back door.”
When she opened her eyes, she saw that Mdm. de Dillon’s smile had become softer, and she was looking dreamily to the window.
“Ah, yes. The aria of the Queen of the Night. Marie-Élise, that’s her name. It finally came to me. She was the very one we saw perform that part at the opera. My Maurice might be the luckiest man in Paris,” she said with no malice or even jealousy in her voice, but love and perhaps even pride.
She looked at Sophie and saw only more confusion. She touched the poor girl’s cheek.
“Oh, my sweet bird. I’m sorry to confuse you. Perhaps it is enough to know this: I am aware and fine with what you have told me. It causes me no distress, and neither you nor my husband nor even Mademoiselle Marie-Élise has done anything wrong.”
Sophie’s brows unfurled a bit as she sighed deeply.
“I’ve always thought of your marriage as a perfect one. The way he dotes on you and writes you poems and brings you flowers,” Sophie said sadly.
Mdm. de Dillon laughed. “Oh, my sweet little bird. I certainly believe our relationship is perfect. Perfect for us. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh, to think of him in an alley of all places with that buxom soprano. To bring such a pristine singer, a woman of such high acclaim, to a dirty alley to have his way with her. What an image. And do you know, while that was happening, I enjoyed a bath drawn by the prettiest of my painting models? I wonder if you know the one, the dark-haired girl who you must have met after one of my sketch class. She’s the one with the rather haunting eyes,” she said, rather dreamily.
“Mlle Genet?” Sophie asked, once more confused.
“Yes! I do enjoy having my bath drawn by a pretty girl. Especially a girl like Marie Genet. She’s the type who just adores being helpful. Nothing makes her happier than scrubbing my back and filling my coupe with champagne. It makes her simply giddy. And the poor girl is so thorough, she often takes off her dress so as not to get it wet. She’s a vision in her smallclothes, her little underthings. They seem to fall off as she bathes me, or they get wet and become almost transparent.”
Sophie seemed to have so many questions on the tip of her tongue, but she was unable to ask any of them, so Mdm. de Dillon continued.
“My husband and I differ in many ways, but we both share a love for pretty and talented young ladies, and pretty and talented young men for that matter.”
Sophie’s hand went to her lips as her eyes grew wide. “My lady, is that not a sin?”
Mdm. de Dillon was a beautiful woman. She held that certain aspect of a lady of wealth and consequence. There was a magnificent power in her. When she turned on Sophie, that power flashed in her eyes, and Sophie nearly stumbled backward.
“I am quite a bit older than you, my little bird, so let me tell you something I’ve learned in my life: If there is one sin in this world, it is not to taste every precious delight placed before us.”
Sophie was hypnotized by her lady’s words. Mdm. de Dillon saw this and smiled. She reached up and took her young protégé’s chin in her fingers. “And you are the sweetest. Do you know that?”
Sophie’s eyes fell to the floor as she shook her head once. Her heart pounded in her chest as she slowly looked up, through her eyelashes, at her lady.
“Then, I mean, why, I-” Sophie tried to swallow down the fear that tightened her throat. She took a single breath and prayed for courage.
“Then why have you never-?”
Mdm. de Dillon’s smile bloomed like a rose to a wide and hungry wolf smile. She let out a low sultry chuckle as she stood up, towering over her little bird.
“Oh, sweet Sophie, my little bird. Even the sweetest, most perfect cherry must be given time to ripen before it’s plucked and eaten.”