Liaisons Galantes: A Scientific Romance

Issue #108
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The Tuesday night salon was held at the home of Monsieur and Madame Dumouchel.  Zéphine, as usual, was among the last to arrive—between her wretched situation at the stationers’ and the erratic performance of the new electric trams, it was a good week when she made it to the 11th arrondissement before seven in the evening.

This had not been a good week.  It was nearly eight o’clock and Zéphine found herself tired, cross, and starving as she knocked on the tall lacquered door of the Dumouchels’ elegant town house.  But, as always, Mme. Dumouchel greeted her with a warm “enchantée de vous revoir” and, even more welcome, a tray of delicate pastries.  Zéphine selected several of her favorites, working hard to savor each bite despite the fact that they would serve as her entire supper.

The salon was already in raucous full swing as she followed Mme. Dumouchel through the double doors into the living room, Mme. Dumouchel’s galanterie for her husband padding contentedly along beside them.  It was a docile little thing, with a cute pug nose and large soulful eyes, and Zéphine could not fail to notice with a pang of envy how similar it was to its counterpart, M. Dumouchel’s galanterie for his wife, which dozed placidly at M. Dumouchel’s feet.  The two creatures were as alike as two little peas in a pod, reflecting the comfortable stability of the Dumouchels’ marriage.  As Mme. Dumouchel settled into the chair next to her husband, the two galanteries merged without the slightest fuss into a single creature that looked exactly the same.

Zéphine sighed at the charming domestic tableau.  Her own last romantic liaison had produced an ill-starred pair of galanteries—her galanterie for her beau had been sleek and black with pointed ears like a fox, while his for her was a mangy gray thing resembling a cross between a wildcat and a basset hound.  Upon meeting, the two galanteries had circled each other warily before merging into an awkward, lopsided creature that seemed ill at ease with itself.  Perhaps it should not have been a surprise when the relationship ended after only four months.

She shook off the dispiriting memory, drew a cup of coffee from the urn, and settled herself on one of the remaining open chairs, content for now to listen and observe.  It always took her half an hour or so to shift her mind from the mundane cares of the working day to the more pleasant intellectual pursuits of the Dumouchels’ salon.

Intellectual and emotional.

Darius, of course, held court from the most comfortable chair in the center of the room.  Multiple conversations swirled around him, but he seemed to be engaged in every one of them, evoking laughter and appreciative nods with his germane comments, incisive questions, and witty remarks.  Then, at just the right moment, he raised a single eyebrow, causing the whole crowd to burst into laughter and delighted applause.

Zéphine sipped her coffee and gazed over the cup’s brim at Darius, admiring the perfect curl of his hair, the porcelain smoothness of his cheek, the oh-so-blue depths of his ever-darting eyes.  Those eyes caught and held hers for just a moment, causing her pulse to flutter in her throat, but then he smiled, nodded a merely companionable greeting, and continued conversing with the talented sculptress Madeleine.

No galanterie for Zéphine lazed at Darius’s feet, of course, nor for anyone else.  Though many women had sought his special favor, he seemed to exist on an intellectual plane above such merely human pursuits as romance.  And no amount of pining would change that situation tonight.

Almost, Zéphine rose.  Almost she crossed the parquet.  Almost she bent and whispered in Darius’s shell-like ear the secret she kept locked away from public view.  But for the hundredth time she pushed her feelings down, sure that nothing but embarrassment could possibly result, and remained seated where she was.

Discreetly swiping the last crumbs of pastry from the plate into her mouth, Zéphine set plate and saucer down and drew her notebook, already half full of observations of café society, from her purse.  She waited, listening, with pen poised.  It was a rare Tuesday evening when she had to wait more than ten minutes for some bon mot to fall from Darius’s mouth or for Matthieu to make some oh-so-characteristic gesture which she might, in future, incorporate into her keenly observed and of-the-moment roman à clef.

That is, if she would ever stop taking notes and actually begin writing the thing.  But how could she begin when there was still so much research to be done?

Darius was still wearing his peacock-blue cravat, she noted.  He’d been the first to adopt the color, months ago—the fabric imported from Turkey at his express request—and since then it had swept the cognoscenti.  Even M. Dumouchel, among the least fashion-conscious of the group, had begun carrying a handkerchief of that color in his waistcoat pocket, and that was a sure sign that Darius was about to become bored with it.  But tonight, apparently, was not to be the night when its successor was introduced.

Nor, as the conversation went on, did it appear that any new or exciting works of art or literature were to see their debut tonight.  Darius was talking about his play Daphnis et Chloé, still stalled and seeking a resolution to the third act; Matthieu hadn’t laid brush to canvas since his Minette had left him; and Madeleine worked so slowly it almost didn’t matter that she couldn’t afford a new block of marble.  Tonight even the galanteries seemed content to lounge at their masters’ feet.

Zéphine sighed and cast her eyes around the room.  Perhaps one of the lesser lights—those like herself, who flitted like moths around the electric illumination of Darius and his inner circle—might be wearing or doing or saying something that she could adopt for one of her minor characters.  But, alas, even the usually volatile Fauchon was engaged in a quiet game of trictrac in the corner. 

A game of trictrac with... whom?  Zéphine leaned forward in her chair.  The gentleman peering intently at the board was not one she’d seen before in this company.  Not a particularly distinguished-looking fellow; his dark hair was disordered, his jacket at least two years out of style, and his posture atrocious.  But just as she was about to turn away, the stranger pounced.  “Six and five!” he cried, calling out the pips on the dice he’d just rolled.  “Par puissance!

Fauchon stiffened at the move, which garnered an astonishing number of points and blocked off half the board from his own pieces.  “I see, Monsieur,” he sniffed, “that your skill at trictrac is far in advance of my own.  I resign!”  And then he slapped the pieces from the board, sending them clattering across the parquet floor.

“But— but—” the stranger stammered as Fauchon swept imperiously from the trictrac table into the dining room, no doubt to salve his wounded pride—and rounded abdomen—with another of Mme. Dumouchel’s delicious pastries.

Zéphine herself had been the victim of Fauchon’s overbearing pride in the past, and her heart went out to the poor innocent who’d just received its full brunt.  Tucking her notebook away, she walked to the trictrac table.  “I’m terribly sorry about that, Monsieur.  Monsieur Fauchon has a... tendency to the dramatic.”  She extended a hand.  “Zéphine Dufay.”

“Henri Broch,” he replied distractedly.  His hand was warm, his skin rough, his grip firm but not unpleasantly so.  A man who worked with his hands, then, but not without grace.  “I only moved according to the dice!” he protested.

Zéphine nodded.  “Don’t worry yourself.  He’ll be back in a few minutes and will have completely forgotten the incident.”  Despite the man’s protests, she knew that there was a great deal of skill in selecting from among the possible moves after each roll of the dice.  Intelligent, but modest.  “So what brings you to our little salon?”

Henri licked his lips and swallowed, his eyes flicking anywhere but Zéphine’s face.  “I was told that it would be a good place to meet... ah... interesting people.”

“Indeed it is.”  She smiled.  “I believe you will fit right in.”

Then he did look her in the eye, and returned her smile.  “Merci... is it Mademoiselle?”

“Mademoiselle indeed... Monsieur.”  This with a pointed glance at his ringless left hand.  Nor did he have any galanterie at his feet.  Promising.

Of course, one’s galanteries did not always accompany one everywhere.

He took her hand again, returning her attention to the here and now, and gave it a light kiss.  Dry, but not too detached.  Very nice.  “Enchanté.  May I perhaps bring you a cup of coffee?”

“I’d be delighted.”

“Cream and sugar?”

“No thank you.”  She patted her waist.  “My figure would never forgive me.”

He settled onto the arm of her chair.  “I can’t see that it has anything to complain about....”

And so the conversation went, and soon the offer of coffee was forgotten.

Later that night, they left the salon together.

Much later, he did bring her coffee. 

Henri was an engineer, the son of a clockmaker who’d saved every spare centime to send his promising boy to the École Polytechnique.  He worked for the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus, designing switches and exchanges for the new electric trams.  “Not glamorous,” he said, shrugging, “but it keeps the wolf from the door.”  She chided him gently for the frequent service disruptions that made the tram schedules into works of fantasy, but he declaimed all responsibility.  “The tracks I am designing now, you will rattle across in five years... if I am lucky.  Today’s tracks were designed by yesterday’s men, and thus are inferior.  So it ever was, in my field.”

In their first weeks together, they spent together every moment that they could, or nearly.  Zéphine’s landlady, a good old-fashioned Catholic woman, was scandalized when she saw Zéphine come strolling home at dawn, but so long as Zéphine paid her rent, the poor distressed biddy could do nothing about it.  The café set, on the other hand, didn’t even blink; in fact, Zéphine and Henri’s uncomplicated liaison was practically too mundane to notice.

For her part, Zéphine was not only enraptured but creatively energized.  Perhaps there was something in the early-morning air, the birdsong, the cheery “Bonjour­!” of the milkman as he clattered along with his horse, his jugs of milk, and his galumphing white galanterie.  Or perhaps it was the quickening of her heart, the racing of her blood.  But for whatever reason, she found herself writing—her pen scratching vigorously from the moment she woke until she had to pry herself away and hurry to her wretched job at the stationers’.  Characters, settings, and situations seemed to flow directly from her heart to the page.

To her surprise, though, Zéphine discovered she was writing a play rather than a novel.  Something about the immediacy, the freshness of her feelings seemed to lead the work to unadorned dialogue and staging rather than the rococo descriptions she’d been so fond of before.  The very strangeness of the form made it all the more appealing and exciting to work on.  She felt a new kinship with the dramatist Darius and found herself beginning to engage with him on Tuesday nights as a peer, a relationship of professional to professional that she’d never experienced before.

The whole affair was phenomenally exhilarating.  And yet... one thing was lacking.  One small yet very important thing.

Their galanteries had not yet appeared.

It was October, nearly three months since that first eventful evening.  They lay in each other’s arms in his bed, the sheets cooling in the evening air. 

“Something is wrong,” he said.  “I can feel it in your shoulders.”  He kissed the nearest one and massaged it, but she shrugged him off and sat up.

“Where are they?”  The duvet fell away, exposing her breasts to the cool air.  She shivered and covered herself with her arms.

“They will come.”  He kissed the tops of her breasts.  “They always come, when two people love each other.”

She turned away from his lips, sat up on the edge of the bed facing the window.  The cold pinched at her nipples, but she didn’t care.  It matched her mood. 

What Henri said was the truth.  Galanteries did invariably appear whenever one truly loved another... even, as she well knew, if that love was unwanted, inconvenient, and unrequited.  Every love poem, every romance novel, every giggled schoolgirl conversation reaffirmed it: a love without galanteries was not really love at all, merely affection.  Marriages had been destroyed, even dynasties had fallen, when galanteries had failed to appear or the “wrong” galanterie had been seen in public.

So why did she have no galanterie for Henri?  Why, instead, must she keep her secret locked away from him, from everyone?

She turned back to Henri.  His eyes glistened in the cool moonlight.  “But do we love each other, Henri?  Do we, truly?”

Je t’aime,” he replied.  Was there a hint of pleading in it?

Usually one did not begin referring to one’s paramour using the familiar tu, rather than the formal vous, until after the galanteries had made their first appearance.  Zéphine and Henri had—laughingly, nervously, tentatively—begun their tutoiement three weeks into their relationship, when the creatures seemed merely a bit delayed.  But now, months later, the use of tu­ was beginning to seem to Zéphine an affectation, a strained childish wish, like professing a belief in Saint Nicholas long beyond the age when one should let go of such things.  “It’s not the same without them.  We should have a warm and living friend to curl up with us when we are together, to remind us of each other when we are apart.  Without them... it feels as though we are only pretending to be together.”

Je t’aime,” Henri repeated, and now it definitely did seem a bit desperate.

She didn’t reply in words.  Instead, she kissed him.

Using words would have required choosing a pronoun. 

They went on without words for a while.

Later, she lay awake in the darkness, watching the moon dance in a puddle on the roof next door and listening to the scratching of the pigeons in Henri’s neighbor’s coop.

In truth, Henri was not everything she had wished for in a lover.  He was kind, yes, and gentle, and charmingly passionate in his enthusiasm for electricity and all other things modern.  And generous; very generous indeed, by comparison with the impoverished artists she’d dallied with when she first had come to the city.  But his looks were unexceptional, his tastes uneducated—he adored the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne—and his artistic sentiments entirely lacking.  He had neither talent nor ambition in any of the creative arts, claiming to be content to observe their performance and creation.  Sometimes she wondered what had drawn him to Darius’s salon in the first place.

He was a very nice man, but he was no Darius.

But... but that didn’t explain why her galanterie for him had failed to appear.  She’d had many a galanterie as a girl, scrawny stumbling things though they were, spawned by pathetic unrequited crushes and misguided teenage romances that came and went like summer storms.  Surely her feelings for Henri, whatever flaws he might have, were at least as deep as any of those?  And it’s not as though she had lost the ability to form galanteries as an adult, far from it....

“You’re awake,” he said.

Startled, she rolled over to find him leaning on one elbow, looking at her.  “So are you.”

He smiled, his teeth very white in the moonlight.  “You called me tu.”

Indeed she had, without thinking.  As this sank in, she threw herself upon him and squeezed herself against his warm and downy chest.  “Je t’aime,” she admitted.  “Je t’aime beaucoup.”

“So then....” Darius opined, with one hand splayed across his chest and the other finger held high, “so then the Mayor should declare a public holiday!  That way no one can get married!”

“No, no, even better!” Zéphine cried.  “He should order Claudette to marry Pierre.”

Darius grinned broadly.  “And because that’s precisely what she wants....”

“She can’t!

And then Darius, Zéphine, Dahlia, and Jean-Michel all yelled in unison “Because of the curse!”  It was the explanation for every ridiculous plot turn.

Everyone laughed hysterically, even Henri, who usually just sat letting the conversation wash over him.

The evening had started quietly enough, with Zéphine shyly presenting a folio of pages to Darius for his perusal at the Dumouchels’ salon.  Despite all the discussions they’d had in recent weeks about her play, a boisterous farrago of fairies, curses, and star-crossed lovers now titled Le Progrès tortueux de l’amour, this was the first time she’d shown him any actual text.  She never would have done it if Henri hadn’t talked her into it, and as Darius had scanned the pages with deeply furrowed brow, she had become more and more convinced that the whole thing had been a mistake and that she would have no alternative but to strangle Henri for even suggesting it.  But then Darius had turned the last page.  Forehead still deeply creased, he’d looked up at her and said “This is good.”

Zéphine had been thrilled beyond words, for so many reasons.  But, of course, she wasn’t sure where to go next with the plot, and the resulting discussion had gradually escalated to a raucous, wide-raging torrent of ideas. 

When the Dumouchels had retired at ten, the conversation—still raging fiercely—had adjourned to a nearby café.  Now most of the chairs sat inverted on the tables, a pile of galanteries lay asleep in the corner, and the one remaining waiter stood yawning and pointedly looking at his watch.  But Zéphine and Darius and their hangers-on didn’t want to go home—didn’t want to let go of this hilarious, incandescent surge of creativity—and as long as Henri kept paying for round after round of coffee the café would not close.

Darius looked at his watch.  “Mon dieu!” he cried.  “Three in the morning!  And me with rehearsal at nine.”  He stood, gathered his hat and jacket, bowed to Zéphine.  “It has been a most enchanting evening.”

Some time later, Zéphine realized she had not yet heard the exit bell over the door ring.  Wondering if there had been some problem with the bill, she peered over her shoulder and saw Darius standing unmoving by the door.  He seemed stunned. 

Following his gaze, Zéphine turned back to the table, where Dahlia and Jean-Michel and Henri were still animatedly discussing the play.

Her play.

Without him

This was unprecedented.  When Darius departed, the party always stopped.

Zéphine looked back at Darius, caught his eye, and shrugged apologetically.

He tipped his hat to her—not without irony—and vanished into the night, the bell tinkling merrily behind him.

For a moment she actually felt sympathy for him.  But soon the feeling vanished, replaced by excitement as she contemplated Dahlia’s question about what the fairies would do if Claudette did somehow manage to marry Pierre.

The next Thursday, Zéphine was just preparing to retire in her own bed when a knock sounded at her door.  Puzzled and somewhat concerned, she opened it just a crack.  “Henri!” she squeaked.

“I’m sorry to arrive so late and unannounced, mon petit chou, but I have urgent news.”

“I, uh— the place is a disaster.  Uh, just one moment.”

But it was much more than a moment later that—panting, heart pounding—she opened the door and bid him enter.  “Terribly sorry to make you wait, mon coeur.”

He looked around before settling himself on the chaise lounge.  “Scarcely a disaster,” he commented.

“Oh, I’m a complete slob when I’m not expecting company.”  She smoothed her chemise.  “You said you had urgent news?”

He cleared his throat.  “I’ve spent the evening in the company of... a most intriguing gentleman.  Have you heard of Dr. Philippe Gavreau?”

“No....”

“I was introduced to him through some of my fellow devotees in the Jules Verne club.  His methods are... unorthodox, to be sure, but I’m told he’s effected some amazing cures.”

Zéphine’s throat went dry and she grabbed Henri’s hand.  “Cures?  Cures for what?

“Ah!  Oh, no, do not disquiet yourself!  Dr. Gavreau specializes in the maladies of galanteries!”

“But they don’t get sick!”

“Not as such.  But there are things that can cause them to waste away, no?  Or not materialize in the first place?  Dr. Gavreau assures me that he can make our galanteries appear.  Though it may take several sessions....”

Zéphine couldn’t meet Henri’s intense, pleading eyes.  “Impossible.  Galanteries are the domain of matchmakers, or psychologists, not medical doctors.”

Henri squeezed her hand reassuringly.  “As I said, his methods are unorthodox.  But won’t you please give him a hearing?  Just one appointment?”  He brought her hand to his lips and gave it a gentle kiss.  “For me?”

She had to smile.  “Oh, very well.”

Dr. Gavreau’s office was located in the 18th arrondissement, not the most exclusive of addresses, but although it was small it was tasteful and well-furnished.  The doctor himself, small and round with a bow tie and pince-nez, greeted them and bid them make themselves comfortable, offering tea and biscuits.

Two galanteries, both small and very well-behaved, lay companionably together at the doctor’s feet.  “My wife’s,” he introduced them, “and my mistress’s.”

Zéphine was rather nonplussed at the revelation, but Henri said “I must congratulate you, Doctor.  They tolerate each other’s presence very well.”

“Indeed.”  He smiled and tapped the side of his nose.  “Evidence of the success of my techniques.”  He closed his office door and seated himself behind his desk.

“Galanteries are not natural creatures, of course,” he began, regarding Zéphine and Henri earnestly over steepled fingers.  “Their existence has been seen as proof of the existence of God, and also of the opposite.  They do not appear for any other animal on Earth—only humans.  They have male and female forms, according to the gender of the beloved, but they do not mate and they do not reproduce.  They eat, but they do not excrete.  And though they are diminished by lack of nourishment, they cannot be starved to death, nor suffocated.”

Zéphine coughed, made uncomfortable by the discussion.  “Of course they do none of those things, Doctor.  They are only the projection into the physical world of the desires and emotions of their masters.”

“How very up-to-date you are, Mademoiselle.  And yet they have weight, they occupy space, they have an electrical field similar—but not identical!—to that of a living animal.  Can any other human emotion bring such creatures into existence?  Hatred?  Envy?  Jealousy?  No!”  He slapped his palms on the desk, making Zéphine jump in her seat.  “Only love has that power, Mademoiselle.”

“And why is that, Doctor?”

“I have absolutely no idea!”  He shrugged, spread his hands, and laughed.  “But the fact is that galanteries do have a physical existence, and their vitality reflects the state of the relationship.  Does this not suggest that the opposite may also be true?”

“Starving a galanterie to terminate the relationship is nothing more than an old wives’ tale,” Zéphine said, sniffing.  And then her gaze fell to her lap.  “Besides,” she admitted in a small voice, “it doesn’t work.”

“No, Mademoiselle, it does not.  But there are alternatives.”  He stood and ushered them into his surgery.

Dr. Gavreau’s surgery did not include the usual examining table, tongue depressors, or jars of iodine and glycerine.  Instead, it held two adjustable chairs, similar to dentists’ chairs, connected by heavy cables to a box the size of a large oven.  Made of black japanned metal and decorated with a simple design of vines in gold leaf, it stood on four sturdy legs and was covered with knobs, dials, and access panels.  The top of the box was cluttered with belts, pulleys, cables, and wires, crowned by a transparent disc half a meter in diameter and striped with shiny metallic bands.

The room had an astringent smell of electricity and metal and disinfectants.

“Behold my machine d’amour électrique!” he proclaimed with a grand flourish. 

Machine d’amour?” Zéphine gasped.  “It’s terrifying!

“You need not be afraid, Mademoiselle.  I assure you it is entirely safe.  I myself have sat in that chair many times.”  He opened a large door on the front of the box, revealing a chamber lined with gleaming metal.  “The galanteries go in here.  The machine’s aetheric vibrations strengthen or weaken them, according to the settings of this dial.”

“How ghastly.”  She looked away from the horrifying machine.  “It’s a good thing we have no galanteries to subject to this monstrosity.”

A swift glance passed between Dr. Gavreau and Henri.  “Dear,” said Henri, speaking for the first time since they’d begun, “there’s... something we need to talk about.”

“Not in here.  Not in front of... that.”

They returned to the office and shut the door, but it was difficult to ignore the looming presence of the machine in the next room.  Dr. Gavreau offered Zéphine a cigarette to calm her nerves.  Though she didn’t smoke, she accepted it and left it smoldering in the ashtray.

Henri pulled his chair around so that he faced her nearly directly, and took both her hands in his.  “I realize this may not be the best time to discuss this, but I have a confession to make, and a serious question to ask of you.”

Zéphine’s heart hammered in her breast.  Unable to form words, she simply nodded.

“When I first met Dr. Gavreau and discussed my—our—situation, he said to me that, in his professional experience, failure to form a galanterie is most often the result of interference from an existing, unacknowledged... relationship.” 

Zéphine stared, wondering, but before she could speak Henri swallowed and continued.

“I then told him what I must confess to you now.”  He swallowed again, several times, and looked up at the ceiling, blinking rapidly, before returning his gaze to Zéphine.  His eyes shone with unshed tears.  “I have been concealing a galanterie from you.  The pigeons on my neighbor’s rooftop?  They don’t exist.  That is where I hid the creature when you visited.”

It was a moment before she could speak.  “Who?” she whispered.

“...Darius.”

“Of course.”  She closed her eyes hard, nodded, drew in a shuddering breath, let it out through her nose.  A cool glass was pressed into her hand.  Reflexively, she took a sip.  Water.  “And have you ever...?”

“No, Zéphine.  Never.”  Henri’s expression was as sincere as any she’d ever seen on anyone’s face.  “The poor thing is entirely unrequited.  But try as I might, I have been unable to make the creature go away.”

She began to sob.

Then the sobs changed character.  The silent spasms that shook her chest began to take on the qualities of laughter.  “I don’t believe this,” she gasped.

“It’s true, my love.”

“No,” she said, and now she was definitely giggling, nearly hysterical.  “It’s... it’s not that I don’t believe you, my sweet.  It’s because”—and now she was snorting hard through her nose—”because I have one too!  Exactly the same as yours!”

Again a glance passed between Henri and Dr. Gavreau.  Henri’s expression was... disappointed?  Dismayed?  Resigned?  While the doctor merely looked infuriatingly smug.

“That’s why I never wanted you to visit me unannounced,” Zéphine continued.  “I have to shut the miserable little creature up in the broom closet.”  The spasms of sobbing laughter had subsided, and she wiped her nose on the back of her wrist.  The doctor offered his handkerchief, and she took it gratefully.  “Poor thing,” she said.

“Poor us,” said Henri.  He smiled, though his cheeks were wet.

Zéphine too smiled, and shook her head.  The whole situation was too tragic to be funny and too ridiculous to be tragic.  Yet they were all stuck in it.

They argued all that evening and well into the night.  Henri wanted to give Dr. Gavreau’s horrific machine a try, to weaken or perhaps even get rid of their unwanted galanteries; Zéphine could imagine nothing more appalling.  In the end, Henri yielded to Zéphine’s stringent objections; they would simply talk the situation over with Darius.

But to Zéphine’s astonishment, before they could even contact Darius, the next morning’s post brought an urgent invitation from him, insisting—nay, demanding—that they both join him for lunch that very day. 

Darius was the last to arrive, storming into the café with a hearty “Bonjour!” and a storm of cheek-kisses all around.  “I am so thrilled that you agreed to meet with me!” he said as he seated himself.

“Yes, well, we also...” Henri began, but Darius cut him off.

“Whatever you have to say, it cannot possibly be as important as this.”  He leaned forward, gathering both of them in with a conspiratorial hand on each shoulder.  “I have just signed an agreement to lease the Théâtre des Capucines!

“Bravo!” cried Zéphine.  She knew he’d been searching for months for an appropriate venue to produce his play Daphnis et Chloé.  “But isn’t the Capucines rather... large?”

“Not for what I have in mind.”  With a broad grin, he drew a sheaf of papers from his jacket pocket and laid them on the table.

Zéphine and Henri leaned in to read the first page. 

Hand-written on the line for “title of performance” were the words Le Progrès tortueux de l’amour

And the engagement began in just six weeks.

All the air seemed to have been sucked out of Zéphine’s lungs.  “But... but... Daphnis et Chloé?

Pah,” Darius said, with a dismissive wave.  Then he laid a hand gently on the back of Zéphine’s.  “I have been watching your progress for years, you know.  And in the last few months, you have demonstrated to me that my true talents do not lie in authorship.  I am a director, dear girl, not a playwright.  But you... you are a genius!  And your marvelous farce will be the vehicle that will bear me—no, all of us—to the fame we so richly deserve!”

“But the script isn’t even finished yet!”

“Details, my dear, mere details.  It has excellent bones, that’s what counts.  All that stands between us and stratospheric success are the cast, costumes, sets, lights, theatrical effects, publicity... oh, and of course financing.”  He turned to Henri.  “I trust you are not averse to bankrolling dear Zéphine’s spectacular debut?”

“Well, I... within limits....”

“Bravo!”  Darius clapped his hands together, then rubbed them briskly.  “Now, which lucky girl shall we cast as Claudette?”

Zéphine sat delightfully stunned as, in a storm of paper napkin scribbles, her own play began to take shape on the table before her.

Four weeks passed in a blur.  Zéphine had never dreamed there were so many details, so many decisions, so much work, to produce a play.  When she wasn’t revising the script, she was rehearsing with the actors, or meeting with scenic designers, or approving fabric swatches, or arguing with the printer over the color of the heroine’s hair in the advertising posters.  And yet, for all of the time she and Henri were spending together with Darius, they had not found even five minutes to discuss the situation with their galanteries.

“He’s impossible!” she sobbed to Henri in bed one evening.  “He’s always so busy, between the directing and the art-directing and the publicity....”

“And the spending my money....”

Zéphine sighed.  “Yes, there is that.”  She paused, pursed her lips.  “But I think he’s right about the fairies.” 

Three fairies played prominent roles in Le Progrès tortueux de l’amour.  Hundreds of actresses had read for the parts, but Zéphine had found none of them acceptable.  The ones who looked the part—tiny, sylph-like women with fine bone structure—didn’t project the commanding power that she felt the sometimes-terrifying Fair Folk should possess.  But the actresses with the voice and stage presence for the characters were all large women who would look ridiculous on stage beside the diminutive girl they’d cast as Claudette.

Darius had come up with the brilliant idea to use marionettes.  They could be as small as desired, they could fly, and their voices could be provided by the most powerful actresses, no matter their looks.  He’d found a talented puppeteer and puppet constructor named Marie-Christine, whose creations were delightful and had exactly the degree of lifelike animation required.  But her work wasn’t inexpensive—in fact, hiring her and her team to build and operate the three puppets, on two weeks’ notice, would stretch the already-strained budget to the breaking point.

Henri blew out a breath.  “I’ve been thinking about that, actually, and doing some research.  There’s a play in London right now with a fairy in it.  She is portrayed by a tinkling bell and a spot of light.”

Zéphine wrinkled up her nose.  “Oh, that would never do.  Our fairies are far more formidable than a little spot of light.”

“Exactly.  But it gave me an idea.  There is a natural phenomenon called foudre globulaire—a floating ball of pure electricity.  We sometimes get it in the power house, and it’s very impressive to see.  It’s quite bright, and it gives off a kind of a humming, sizzling sound and a smell of ozone, but it’s harmless.  I think I can build a device to create and control these lightning-balls on demand.”

“That might be just the thing!  But wouldn’t it be expensive?”

He winked.  “We could put a note in the program—’This play is dedicated to our employers, who have given more than they know.'”

Mon cher ingénieur.”  She kissed him.  “But we’ll have to convince Darius to go along with it.” 

At the mention of Darius’s name, her galanterie for him leapt up from the floor and curled, purring, between her and Henri.  It had been strange at first to allow it to come with her to Henri’s apartment, and the poor frail thing was still a bit skittish around Henri’s galanterie for Darius, but admitting its existence had been a great relief. 

Henri scratched the creature under the chin; its eyes closed with pleasure.  “That man can be infuriating.”  He sighed.  “If he weren’t so damned attractive, I think I would kill him.”

One week to the première.  They had moved into the Théâtre des Capucines, which bustled with workmen painting flats, seamstresses fitting costumes, and actors rehearsing their parts in every available corner.  And, of course, theatre people being what they were, there were two or three times as many galanteries underfoot as usual, and more appearing every day. 

Darius, the director and dramaturge, held court at a two-legged table set up over the best seats in the orchestra, where all the cast and crew came to do their obeisance.  Zéphine, as author, and Henri, as director of theatrical effects, sat to either side of him like the queen and crown prince.  The three of them had been spending nearly every waking minute together for weeks, and their relationship had grown into a close camaraderie of easy kisses and casual arms over the shoulder.

If they hadn’t all been so busy, it would have been heaven.  As it was, Zéphine’s nerves felt taut as piano wires. 

The problem was the ending.  The resolution of Claudette’s love triangle with Pierre the dashing millionaire and Jean-Paul the bumbling but earnest delivery boy never came out satisfying, no matter how many fairies she threw into it.  If she chose Pierre she seemed heartless; if she chose Jean-Paul she seemed a fool.  And with the ending in flux, Darius, the actors, and even the costumers felt free to suggest, and even demand, change after change in the script.  Bit by bit her marvelous idea had turned into something that seemed nothing more than a terrible muddle.

She thought of it as “the” script now, not “her” script; so many people had dabbled their fingers in it that it had more in common with the filthy water in which a painter cleaned brushes than a refreshing drink.  She couldn’t imagine what Darius had seen in this script to make him risk his reputation and so much money—so much of Henri’s money, it must be admitted—on producing it.

But even worse than what had happened to her script was what had happened to her relationship with Henri.  Between his employment at the CGO and his work on the cabinet des fées, which was what he called the box that produced and controlled the balls of electricity, he had little time for sleep and no time at all for Zéphine.  He’d grown silent and cross, bustling in and out of the theatre with little more than a grunted greeting for her.  He smelled of metal and ozone, and his face seemed set in a perpetual scowl.

She had almost begun to welcome the hours she spent struggling to stay awake at the stationers’, a brief period of normalcy in her life where the biggest decision she had to make was whether or not they needed to order more cream laid paper before the end of the month.

At the moment, the company was engaged in the first complete technical rehearsal, a run-through of the entire show without costumes but with all of the scenery changes, lighting cues, and theatrical effects.  It was supposed to be run without stopping, with each scene taking the same time it would in the actual performance, but in actuality they’d encountered some kind of difficulty with the lighting in Act One, Scene Three and had bogged down there.  It was now nearly ten in the evening and they hadn’t even made it to Act One, Scene Four.

Henri seethed in his seat on the far side of Darius.  This was to have been his first demonstration of the cabinet des fées to the full company, but the fairies didn’t appear until Act One, Scene Nine, and as the evening had worn on and on his mood had grown blacker and blacker. 

“Ten o’clock,” someone called from the wings, and the company burst out in groans and ironic applause.  The hired stagehands received a fifty per cent bonus in wages after ten.

“Imbeciles,” Henri muttered under his breath.  Zéphine reached behind Darius and laid a consoling hand on Henri’s shoulder, but he roughly brushed it off.

Hours went by.  Finally, after going through the end of Act One, Scene Eight three times, the stagehands managed the final scene change.  Henri sat forward, hands clenched between his knees, awaiting the debut of his fairies. 

The stage remained dark.

Silence reigned, except for shuffling, cleared throats, and muttered curses.

Finally the stage manager walked on from the wings, carrying his bulky master script under one arm, and clapped his hands for attention.  A spotlight swung over to illuminate him.

“We’re having some trouble with the electric truc,” he said, shielding his eyes from the glare, “and as it’s after midnight, the crew would like to stop now and start fresh in the morning.”  Applause and weak cheers greeted this announcement.

Darius turned to Henri with an expressive shrug.

For a long time Henri sat stock-still, quivering with rage.  Then he burst out “Eh, bien!,” stood, and strode up the aisle. 

“Henri!” Zéphine rose to follow him.

Darius stopped her with a cautionary hand on her arm.  “Let him walk it off outside,” he said, “by himself.  We’ll all be better off with a good night’s sleep.”

Zéphine just gave him a hard look and took off after Henri.

She caught up with him half a block away.  A cold rain was falling on the boulevard des Capucines, and the few pedestrians hurried along with heads bowed.  An electric tram clattered by, sparks spitting from the wire above.

“I cannot keep up this charade any longer,” he said as she came running up.  He had not bothered to take his coat or hat, and didn’t seem to care that his shirt was soaked to transparency.

Zéphine shivered and clutched her shoulders.  She, too, had gone out without hat or coat.  “Please come back.”

“No.”  He took her by the shoulders, straight-armed.  “I will not come back, not to the theatre, not to Darius, not even to you, my dear heart.  Not unless both of you agree to visit Dr. Gavreau with me.”  He bowed his head, rain running down his face and dripping from the end of his nose.  “I tire of these endless games of theatricality, Zéphine.  I want a real relationship, a relationship founded on trust and mutual respect.  A relationship where you and I have galanteries for each other.  Dr. Gavreau insists that he can do this, but only if all three of us are present.”

She recoiled from the very thought of that place, with its smells of electricity and disinfectants.  “But... do you think that ghastly machine can rid us of our galanteries with Darius?”

Henri shrugged.  “Nothing else seems to be able to.”

Rapid footsteps splashed through the puddles.  Zéphine looked up to see that Darius had followed them out into the rain.  Miserable though she was, she was touched by the gesture.  “Darius,” she said, “Henri wants us to visit Dr. Gavreau together.”

“What?  That charlatan?”

Henri stiffened.  “If you do not agree, I will withdraw my machine, and my financial support, from the production immediately.”

Darius clenched his fists.  “It’s not too late to use the puppets.  And I can find other backers.”

Zéphine stepped close to Henri and put her arm over his shoulder.  Though the skin under his sodden shirt was cold and trembling, he stood firm, and in that moment she loved him even more.  She, too, set her shoulders and met Darius’s gaze with determination.  “Can you continue without a script as well?”

Eventually they retreated to the theatre, the three of them sitting in the orchestra pit with their coats thrown over their shivering, damp shoulders and their faces unflatteringly illuminated by the “ghost light,” a single bare electric bulb left lit to keep the theatre free of ghosts.  All of the human members of their company had long since departed.

Although Henri had precipitated this crisis, it was Zéphine who did most of the talking.  “Je t’aime, Darius,” she confessed.  “I’ve loved you for years... desperately, hopelessly, from afar... and though I’ve never before had the courage to admit it to you, I’ve nursed it in my heart like an abandoned little bird.”

Moi aussi,” was all that Henri could add to that, and there was no telling whether the water dripping from his chin was rain or tears.  “Moi aussi, exactement.”

Darius drew a handkerchief from his pocket but found it soaked.  With an ironic smile, he wrung it out, wiped Henri’s face, then tipped up his chin and gave him a delicate kiss.  He gave another kiss to Zéphine.  “Oh, my dears, I am sorry that I was so inattentive to your feelings.  You know that I can be... rather intensely focused on my work.”  He shook his head.  “I have been a fool.”

Henri took both of Darius’s hands.  “I have talked with Dr. Gavreau several times in the last weeks—by myself, I’m afraid,” he confessed in an aside to Zéphine.  “He is quite confident that will be able to help us with his machine.  He says that he can rid Zéphine and I of our unrequited galanteries so that we can form a more permanent attachment with each other, but your presence is required to complete the treatment.”

Darius’s eyes narrowed.  “And the cost?  I know how these charlatans operate.”

Pah.”  Henri waved a hand.  “It is nothing, by comparison with the expense of staging this production.  And it means far more to me.”  He reached out to Zéphine and took her hand as well.  “To us.  Please.”

“Very well.”  Darius raised Henri’s left hand to his lips and kissed the knuckles.  “If nothing else, I feel I owe you something for my years of disregard.”  He turned to Zéphine and went to kiss her cheek... but at the last moment, with Darius’s breath so warm on her face, she could not resist turning her head to meet his lips with hers.

His eyes widened momentarily.  Then they closed again, as he kissed her back.

The properties for Act One included a large and comfortable divan. 

Large enough, as it turned out, for three.

Entertaining though the evening was, it brought forth no changes in their galanteries, so after a hideously busy weekend of rehearsals, yawns, and knowing glances they made the appointment with Dr. Gavreau.  And so it was that on Tuesday morning they found themselves in his surgery.

There were now three chairs, grouped in a semicircle facing the machine, and Dr. Gavreau wore rubber gloves, a long white coat with a Mandarin collar, and dark tinted eyeglasses of a peculiar design that completely covered the eye.  He handed a pair of these to each of them, explaining “You must wear these to protect your eyes from the electrical spark.”

Zéphine donned the uncomfortable glasses and found that they turned everything green.  “I can barely see,” she complained.  To her shame, her trembling voice revealed her fear.

Henri took her hand and gave her what was surely meant to be a reassuring smile, but with his face tinted an unnatural shade of green and his eyes obscured by his own glasses the effect was merely ghastly.  Zéphine tried to smile back.

Dr. Gavreau led them to the three chairs, with Zéphine in the middle, and opened the largest door.  “Your galanteries, please.”

Zéphine had to look away as the door was closed and latched.  The poor shivering thing had such fear and confusion in its eyes... this was even worse than hiding it in a closet.  She tried, and failed, to take a deep calming breath.  At least it would be over soon, she told herself.

“And now!” Dr. Gavreau proclaimed, in a showman’s voice that Zéphine found entirely inappropriate for a doctor’s surgery, “La machine électrique du Docteur Gavreau!” 

Stepping behind the machine, he bent and began to turn, with considerable effort, a large crank.  The belts and pulleys atop the machine rotated, setting the large transparent disc to whirring.  Soon sparks and jagged lines of electricity appeared, zapping from point to point on the machine and throwing the room into a flickering confusion of flaring light and shadow, all tinted a hideous green by Zéphine’s glasses.  She swallowed hard in an attempt to control her racing heart, gripping Henri’s hand on the right and Darius’s on the left with painful intensity.

For many horrific minutes, bathed in the nightmare light and the smell of ozone, Dr. Gavreau danced around his machine, peering at dials and adjusting knobs.  Finally, with a dramatic flourish, he pulled a large lever; the wheel ceased to spin and the electricity to dance.  “Messieurs, Mademoiselle, you may remove your protective eyeglasses now.”

She pulled the hateful things from her face and flung them clattering in a corner.  “Is it done?” she asked.

Dr. Gavreau bent to unlatch the large door.  “Now, I must caution you that you may not see an immediate visual change.  Sometimes several sessions are required to —”

The metal chamber was nearly filled by a single large galanterie that Zéphine had never seen before.  It was rather awkwardly proportioned, and particolored in large patches of brown, gold, and white.  With an inquisitive yip it leapt from the chamber and began snuffling around the room.

“What is this absurdity?” Darius demanded.

“And where are our galanteries?” added Henri.  The chamber was now completely empty.

“I... uh... such a phenomenon....”  The doctor swallowed.  “I... I must consult my notes.”  He hurried from the surgery to his outer office.

Zéphine bent down and scratched the galanterie between the ears.  It reacted immediately, leaning against her leg and purring contentedly.  The eyes, as it looked up at her, seemed strangely familiar.  “I like it,” she said.

Darius petted its flank.  “I do too.  But where did it come from?”

Henri was peering at the interior of the metal chamber.  “These seams are welded.  I can’t see any way he could have exchanged our galanteries for this one.”  It went trotting over to Henri and licked his hand.  He stroked it absently, familiarly, as he continued to inspect the machine.  “Nor did he seem to have expected this outcome.”

“I think I know what it is,” said Darius.  His voice was so very serious, verging on dismal, that Zéphine and Henri had to turn from the mysterious galanterie and give him their full attention.  “I think it is your new galanterie for each other.”  He sighed.  “The treatment worked, and you are now free of me.”  Again he sighed.  “I wish...  But no, my wishes are not important.  What is important is that you be happy together.”  He gathered his coat and hat from the peg on the wall.  “The show must go on, as they say, but for now I will leave the three of you to get acquainted.  Au revoir.”

But as he turned to go, the galanterie divided.  One galanterie, this one small and white and wiry, trotted after Darius.  The other, still looking much the same except that it was mostly brown and gold in color, remained with Henri and Zéphine.  “Darius!” cried Zéphine, astonished.

Darius returned.  There was some pacing and sniffing between the two galanteries, as there often is with a new relationship, but eventually the new galanterie merged again with the first.  “How remarkable,” he said.

Zéphine regarded the creature.  “Henri, go over there in the far corner.  Darius, you come over here with me.”

This time when the galanterie divided there was a tawny one that remained with Henri, and a white and brown one that followed her and Darius. 

“Now you stay where you are,” she told Darius.  Holding her breath, heart pounding, she moved away from him....

The white and brown galanterie divided.  Again. 

Now there were three: white, gold, and brown.  The brown one, which looked up at Zéphine with clear affection, somewhat resembled her previous galanterie for Darius but seemed happier and more robust.

“This is... unprecedented,” Henri said, even as he bent to tousle his galanterie’s ears. 

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Darius agreed.  “It’s always one galanterie per pair of people.”

They moved into the outer office, the three galanteries merging back into one almost without fuss, where they found Dr. Gavreau pacing distractedly.  “Merci!” Zéphine cried, kissing him on both cheeks.  “Merci beaucoup!

Henri shook the doctor’s hand vigorously.  “Amazing, Doctor.  No one else could possibly have achieved such a result.”

“Yes, well, ah.... I’m very happy for you, of course... but if you will excuse me, I have, ah, another patient coming in, in... well, very shortly.”

“Of course, of course,” said Darius, beaming expansively.  “I quite understand.  In any case, we must return to the theatre.”

They descended to the street, chatting excitedly among themselves, but the galanterie kept darting from one to the other of them, happily bounding about and threatening to trip them all up.  Five minutes later they were lost in laughter, and not a one of them remembered what the conversation had been about. 

The following Monday they returned to Dr. Gavreau’s office unannounced.  “We wanted to bring you some flowers,” Zéphine said, placing a huge bouquet on his desk.

“How delightful!” the doctor cried.  “And such a quantity!”

“We have many more,” Darius grinned, “back at the theatre.  The reviews have been phenomenal.”

Zéphine squeezed the doctor’s hands.  “And we have you to thank for it all.  If you hadn’t done this for us”—she gestured to their galanterie, which rested amiably at her feet—”we might never have found our perfect ending.”

Darius was the one who had first realized that the fairies in their play could do for their characters Claudette, Pierre, and Jean-Paul what Dr. Gavreau had done for them.  Their own relationship might be too unconventional for the legitimate stage, but Zéphine had come up with the idea of the fairies combining Pierre and Jean-Paul into a single person, and Henri had developed the simple but spectacular electrical effect that replaced the two actors with one.  The audience had been surprised and delighted.

“Really, it was the three of you who did all the work,” the doctor demurred.

“I must confess,” Darius admitted, “that right up to the point our galanterie appeared... I was afraid you were nothing but a fraud.”

Henri, who had held back bashfully, now presented Dr. Gavreau with a large envelope.  “My colleagues in the Société centrale des ingénieurs would be overjoyed if you would accept this invitation to give a presentation on the physical principles behind your wonderful machine.”

The doctor seemed taken aback by the request.  “Yes, well, ah...” he sputtered.  “I’m afraid the principles are... my machine is the result of many years of... of tinkering, and experimentation.  I, ah... I only know that it works, not how.”  He spread his hands.  “I’m sorry.”

“In that case my colleagues and I would be happy to help you to analyze your machine.”

The doctor shook his head.  “Thank you for your very generous offer, but I must decline.”

“But why?”  Henri leaned forward, his face intense.  “You have helped us so much, Doctor... for the good of all humanity, its theory of operation must be understood and documented!”

Dr. Gavreau looked at the envelope in his hand for a long time.  Then he raised his eyes to Henri’s.  “You’re very kind.  But I’m afraid I have a confession to make.”  Without another word, he led them into his surgery and opened the machine’s side panel.

Behind it was revealed... nothing.  Apart from the large compartment that held the galanteries, the machine was nothing but an empty box, decorated with dials and knobs unconnected to anything.  A few stray wires dangled here and there.

“So you were a fraud all along?” cried Darius.

“I am not a fraud!” the doctor protested.  “I am a fully qualified psychologist.  My techniques do work, as you have seen, though not usually with such... unexpected results.  As in most branches of psychology, it is the patients themselves who effect the cure.  My machine merely puts the patients into an appropriate frame of mind to accept what they already know.”

He looked around at Henri, Darius, and Zéphine, his eyes pleading.  “Messieurs, Mademoiselle... you have trusted me with your most intimate secrets.  I hope that I may expect the same discretion from you.  I have chosen to reveal the secret of my machine to you, and you alone, because you understand the real psychological impact a properly presented theatrical effect can have on an audience... in this case, an audience of three.”  He turned to Henri and took both his hands.  “And I know that if you tell your colleagues that my machine, although effective, is a trade secret and can never be documented, they will believe you and leave me in peace.”

Henri seemed taken aback by the request; Darius gave Dr. Gavreau a considering look.  But it was Zéphine who broke the impasse, laying a delicate hand on the doctor’s tweed-jacketed shoulder.  “What you have done for us, no other man could do.  We are honored by your trust and will keep your secret safe.  Will we not?”  She looked to either side then, holding Henri’s and Darius’s eyes until they nodded acquiescence.

“Well then,” Darius cried, clapping his hands together.  “I’m afraid we must depart; we have a luncheon date with M. du Taillis of Le Matin. Our public awaits!”

And so, with handshakes and cheek-kisses all around, the three of them walked out arm in arm in arm, their galanterie bouncing enthusiastically along at their feet.


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David D. Levine is a lifelong SF reader who made his first professional sale in 2001, won the Writers of the Future Contest in 2002, was nominated for the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2003, was nominated for the Hugo Award and the Campbell again in 2004, and won a Hugo in 2006 (Best Short Story, for "Tk'Tk'Tk").  A collection of his short stories, Space Magic, from Wheatland Press , won the Endeavour Award in 2009. In January of 2010 he spent two weeks at a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert, and you can read about that at www.bentopress.com/mars/. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kate Yule, with whom he edits the fanzine Bento, and their website is at www.BentoPress.com.

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2 Comments on “Liaisons Galantes: A Scientific Romance”

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  1. […] novelette “Liaisons Galantes: A Scientific Romance,” which initially appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #108, resold to e-book anthology The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year Five, already out […]

  2. […] novelette “Liaisons Galantes: A Scientific Romance,” which originally appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #108, resold to ebook anthology The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year Five, already […]

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