Eugen de Blaas – The love letter, 1904

Good education and polite manners were virtues Eugénie’s mother had always tried her hardest to instil in her from a young age and, to give credit where it is due, it had been a more or less successful endeavour. It goes without saying that should Eugénie have been born the opposite sex, she would have occupied political spaces of the highest regard. Unfortunately, for better or for worse, she had the luck of being born the second daughter of a noble family, which, while socially and economically advantageous, such disposition only manifested in a mediocre marriage with an equally mediocre rich husband. Eugénie shuddered at the thought of suffering through life in a loveless relationship misconstrued by society as the highest goal a woman could possibly strive for, much less a relationship with a man. 

Eugénie was only twelve years old when she noticed how well the black and white dress hugged her governess’ waist and her usually tight up-do fell gently on her shoulders – a scene she wasn’t supposed to have been privy to. For years, she would lay awake in bed thinking about that moment, long after that governess had left and another had taken her place in the household. She never told anyone, not even her closest friend, for she knew whatever butterflies fluttered in her stomach upon that memory would not be accepted. How could she, when all everyone would talk about around her were the polite gentlemen they had met at balls and all she had noticed had been the fairy-like movements of her peers’ dances and their distinctive dresses? In her eyes, the men all looked like the same black and white penguins she had seen in encyclopaedias, while the women held an extraordinary air of uniqueness in the different layers of their skirts and intricate hairstyles. She almost envied the men who had the right to look at them the same way she wished she could. After one such occurrence, her mother scolded her for an hour straight in their painting room and then forbade her from meeting with her closest confidants without a chaperone in sight. 

Afterwards, Eugénie learnt to keep to herself, despite how madly she wished she could confide in someone who understood her. In a way, when she found out about the secret ladies’ society hosted by an old widow, that place had become her sanctuary without even visiting it first. The smell of warm candles and thick, voluptuous tomes of books, which permeated the air of that central Parisian apartment, would follow her home every night for months on end. The graduation of her adolescence was spent in the company of like-minded women and the days thereafter were plump with sweet conversation and whispered words of wisdom. She was happy to find that she was not bizarre in her thinking on most worldly matters, that the “insane” idea of her sharing the rights of her brother and father and the freedom of pursuing the love of whoever she pleased were not imaginary myths constructed by her wild mind. Instead, they were almost physically tangible ideas locked in the minds and hearts of many others just like herself. She had only needed to find the bravery to look for them.  

She was just discussing the unmarked tragedy of the tumultuous lives of women during the revolution when two new figures entered the salon. One was familiar – Marie, if memory served her correctly, a bubbly brunette with a lively laugh and an even livelier mind. She quickly ran off somewhere, leaving her companion alone. The other girl was a stranger shrouded in the darkness of her skirts and long black hair, which brushed past her chest. She was fair in the face and held her hands close to her body – she looked almost like a scared bunny in the presence of a crowd. Then, Madame cajoled her inside a connected antechamber and closed the door behind them. 


The calling of her name awoke her from the spell she was under. Eugénie turned to Carole, who gave her a quizzical look. 

“Do you know who that was?” the former asked. 

Yet another expression of confusion, but this time mixed with slight annoyance on Carole’s part. She hated ambiguous questions, especially ones asked outside of the context of the previous conversation. Eugénie couldn’t fault her, though. If she had spent her entire life with a husband, who was rarely spiritually in the same room as her and often neglected his marital duties to watch horse races outside of Paris, perhaps Eugénie would get easily annoyed, too. She also knew that if Carole knew who had come in, she would’ve immediately said so, for she was a formidable woman in her early forties, who somehow knew every new and old money family in the entirety of Paris. 

“New young blood, I would assume. We get five of these every week and then afterwards most never come back. You know how it goes with these girls of frivolous minds. They never understand that we do more here than just discuss the newest colour of the newest dress of the season.” Nonetheless, Carole always found it in herself to answer even the most out of place questions with an even more out of place remark. She was almost entirely consumed by her rage for having wasted her adolescence complying with what was expected of her. So, she developed the bad habit of judging every young woman who didn’t fit into her current expectations as to how one should live their life. 

Carole turned her eyes back to the book in her hands and continued to read aloud whatever was written on the page, but Eugénie’s mind was already fleeting from the topic at hand and going straight to the stranger in the adjacent antechamber. She felt the urge to go inside and meet her, for she knew how overwhelmed she must be feeling. The salon was truly a thing to behold and the people in it were a fury of ideas. She loved listening to her friends speak about the intricacies of history and the forgotten lives of the people in its pages. She greatly enjoyed whenever a new political pamphlet graced her father’s desk so she could take it to the salon to discuss. The adrenaline from reading about yet another ban and knowing that this safe space Madame had created may rest untouched by the gruesome hands of the fate of the world kept her warm at night. She only wished she could tell the new girl those same things. 

Just when she had finally settled on visiting them, Madame and the stranger came back into the grande salon and began walking around. They took their sweet time discussing the beautiful leather spines of the books, which lined the walls, and Madame appropriately introduced her to the other members. Eugénie followed their promenade with unhidden interest and when she and the new arrival finally locked eyes, she didn’t miss the opportunity to send a cheeky wink her way. The latter immediately blushed and turned towards her conversation partners. Eventually, they came before Eugénie and Carole. 

“I would like to introduce to you our newest member, Ophelia,” said Madame in her grandiose tone of voice. 

Carole barely passed a glance towards them before silently retreating into a corner. Eugénie, however, stood up and extended her arm.

“Pleased to meet you, Ophelia. My name is Eugénie. I hope we become close friends.” 

She smiled and tightly shook Ophelia’s hand. The black-haired girl shyly shook it back and repeated Eugénie’s words back to her. When their hands parted, Eugénie felt electricity run up her arm in the absence of Ophelia’s hand. It was very warm as opposed to the cold storm that sounded beyond the respite of the closed windows and burning fireplace of the salon. 

Suddenly, Madame told them she had to leave upon someone calling her name. The two young women were left alone. Eugénie locked eyes with her new companion and felt like they were the only people in the room. The sound of neighbouring conversations became a dull ring in her ears. 

“Would you like to sit down?” She invited Ophelia to the seat next to her that was now empty due to Carole’s leave. 

Ophelia gracefully accepted and sat down without further prompting. They engaged in a rather mundane conversation about the weather, then the feeling of joining the society. Ophelia tentatively shared that she was growing accustomed to the atmosphere around her, although it would take some time before she would become a valuable member. 

“Oh, do not even think that for a second, Ophelia.” argued Eugénie. “If you found your way to this salon, you are already a valuable member. We always look for people to fill the space in this room.” 

“Your friend didn’t seem very pleased to see me,” replied Ophelia.

Eugénie was shocked that her partner remembered Carole’s behaviour. She herself had already forgotten all about it. To pick and choose what you wished to care about was something she had learned to do a long time ago when she finally figured out that it was no use trying to explain to her mother why she didn’t wish to go on a promenade with yet another, supposedly suitable and eligible bachelor. And so, whatever Carole had to say was inconsequential to the general flow of time and conversation.  

“Never mind Carole. She tends to be a bit pessimistic. Most here are not. I am not.” 

“In such a case, I would appreciate your optimism a bit.” 

Eugénie chuckled and put her hand up to her lips. She let herself explore Ophelia’s features as she looked around the room and started commenting on the horrible weather outside. She had small, pale freckles sprinkled over her nose and cheeks. Her lips were naturally rosy and she waved her hands around as she went on a tangent about how they will experience a longer winter than previous years and that the weather would continue to worsen until the middle of March. Or at least, so her father thought, not that she particularly cared for such matters. 

“Do you often disregard what your father believes?” Eugénie asked. 

“I wouldn’t say disregard. I listen to him as much as any child would listen to their parents, but I suppose as time goes by and you grow up, you begin to realise that your parents have faults of their own and that they do not know everything there is to know.” 

“You are right. As children, we often believe that our parents and guardians are perfect. We are taught that they know so much more than us and that we should always listen to them. However, I myself have found that the more I imagine myself in the position of my mother, the less I understand why she did the things she did,” replied Eugénie. 

The image of her mother locking her in her bedroom flashes through her mind. The memories of feeling inadequate and ugly in the masks she was forced to wear whenever she was in an uncomfortable social encounter. All of that because her dearest mother couldn’t understand her, or rather, refused to.

“Are you alright?” asked Ophelia. “You suddenly stared off into space.”

It took Eugénie a second to regain her composure. 

“Yes, quite alright,” she answered and then less than a heartbeat later asked, “Would you like to grab tea some time?” 

Time seemed to stop again at that moment. Ophelia’s eyes slightly widened at the proposition. Eugénie could already imagine the indignant look her mother would give her upon hearing the news of this supposed teatime with a new friend. Ophelia couldn’t find it in herself to care, for time was frozen and all she could hear was the “yes” leaving Ophelia’s lips. 

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