A Simple Smile

Paris, France

July 1808

 

Monsieur Michel de Grandpre glided into the foyer of the Théâtre National de la Rue de Richelieu – The French National Theatre – and wordlessly demanded everyone’s attention.

The guests gathered to enjoy the Académie Impériale de Musique – The Paris Opera – didn’t find Monsieur de Grandpre’s demands as powerful as he willed them.

Nevertheless, he kept his head cocked and gracefully danced his way through the resplendent crowd to Rodolphe Kreutzer’s Violin Concerto No 17. Reaching the staircase at the back of the foyer he stood on the bottom step to overlook the crowd. He relieved a passing waiter of a very hard come by glass of Burgundy white wine and sipped slowly, awaiting the call to be seated.

 

Monsieur Mathieu le Pique handed over his ticket and begrudgingly slunk into the foyer. The opulent beauty on display was far too extravagant for his tastes. Diamond chandeliers, Monet paintings, red carpets, and the ridiculous outfits. He couldn’t comprehend that the guests had purchased clothes to wear just once to the theatre. His suit was only a few weeks away from having holes worn through it. If his uncle hadn’t demanded he leave the house he never would have agreed to attend such a ridiculous show of wealth.

Keeping his head low, he tried to stay out of everyone’s eye line as he bumbled his way through the crowd. Unlike Monsieur de Grandpre however, he garnered the unwanted attention of anyone who fell within line of sight. When he finally made it through the mocking crowd he stood on the opposite side of the step to Monsieur de Grandpre and tried to hide against the banister. The call to be seated couldn’t come quick enough, so that he could hide in the dark away from their condescending eyes.

 

Monsieur de Grandpre glanced across the staircase and scoffed at the shabby man who had dared to present himself in such a manner. The Opera was the crème de la crème of social events. Anyone who had any wealth or influence would be there. Not to mention that it was the best opportunity for the young bachelors to attract the attention of the young bachelorettes.

 

Mademoiselle Madeline Tirevit spun, billowing her layered, yellow dress around her legs, and her friends oohed and ahhed as appropriate. She listened to their compliments for an acceptable amount of time and then excused herself to visit the powder room. She had to walk towards the staircase to get there and as she did Messieurs de Grandpre and le Pique caught sight of her beauty at exactly the same moment. Both men took a step forward and upon seeing the other move they both turned and glared.

Monsieur de Grandpre moved with quick grace, getting to Mademoiselle Tirevit first. Catching her off guard he bowed so low that his fingers almost grazed the mosaicked floor as he brushed aside his coat tails. As he came back up he delicately took her right hand in both off his and placed a soft kiss on her silken glove. “Mademoiselle, it is an honour and a pleasure,” he said, but before he could introduce himself Monsieur le Pique swooped in and snatched her hand away.

Monsieur le Pique did away with all of the formal etiquette, letting her hand free and smiling warmly.

“Excuse me, Sir,” Monsieur de Grandpre emphasised placing a hand on his fellow suitor´s shoulder, “May I ask that you give this beautiful young lady and myself a moment?”

Monsieur le Pique spun so that the hand fell off of his shoulder and both men faced each other. “I believe it is the young lady´s decision how she should spend her time,” he rebutted. “Perhaps we should allow her to say whether she wishes to spend a moment alone with you.”

“I dear say that would be a tremendous idea if I had not happened to attain the lady’s attention before you.”

“This is not a case of the early bird catches the worm. In our case the worm is a beautiful lady whom can speak for herself and tell us just who she wishes to spend a moment with. She is not caught and expected to succumb to your whims.”

“To imply in such queer terms that the mademoiselle is in any part a caught worm is a grave dishonour. Further cause of why she would not wish you to interrupt. If it all she required a cause after looking upon you.”

Mademoiselle Tirevit seemed unable to get a word in to let her own interests be known, so she settled in to watch the men argue. Not that she wished to spend a moment alone with either of the men who seemed so desperate to do so with her.

“You misrepresent my words, yet you show no hesitation on delivering your own slander upon me. I say there is a better way in which we can settle this dispute.”

“You think to challenge me to a duel?” Monsieur de Grandpre scoffed incredulously. “It shall be my honour to dispose of you so that the lady shall bestow upon me a smile.” His eyes suddenly lit up. “However, surely the lady is worthy of more of a show than a simple duel. I propose we add an element of grandeur and conduct our duel aboard hot air balloons.”

Monsieur le Pique looked uncertain for a prolonged moment before he reluctantly agreed.

“Then it is decided. However, we shall not interfere with the polished elegance of tonight´s proceeding. The duel shall take place one month from tonight in the garden of Tuileries.”

The men reluctantly shook hands and bid Mademoiselle Tirevit adieu, without her ever saying a word.

She shook her head and laughed. Whatever was a lady to do, she thought. When men find them themselves in the presence of a young woman they tended to lose their wits.

 

August 1808

 

A light summer breeze blew through the Garden of Tuileries, one kilometre south of the French National Theatre. Two identically constructed hot air balloons tethered to the ground eighty yards apart rocked gently in the wind. Monsieur de Grandpre had taken it upon himself to commission the balloons so that he was assured there would be no faulty equipment for the duel. The balloons themselves were made of the finest brown cloth and the wicker baskets had been imported from south east asia.

Mademoiselle Tirevit pushed through the bustling crowd that had gathered to witness the unusual duel, with a gentleman trailing behind her. As she was recognised by members of the crowd gossiped word spread of the arrival of the woman who had made this all happen. As it did so it caused the crowd to part for her and allow her to make a beeline straight towards the balloons. She stopped at the front of the crowd still some distance from the balloons and wore an emotionless stare as both Messieurs de Grandpre and le Pique smiled and waved in her direction.

“My dear what madness is this?” The gentleman who trailed behind Mademoiselle Tirevit asked.

“The two gentlemen, both apparently eligible bachelors thought it would be chivalrous to conduct a duel at eighty yards. Astride gas balloons no less. All for me to supposedly bestow upon the champion a smile,” Mademoiselle Tirevit responded with great amusement.

“Did they not think to rectify their folly when they heard of our betrothal?”

“I’m sure they would have; if they had given me a chance to speak.”

Monsieur le Pique appeared to take offence to something Monsieur de Grandpre said to him and the men broke into melodramatic fisticuffs. The two men that had been brought along to second each of the duelists were forced to put themselves between the men to draw them apart.

 

With all of the requisite parties present Superintendent Lois Bernard, the curator of the Paris Opera and the man chosen to officiate the duel, stepped onto the prepared crates between the two balloons. “Bonjour Madams and Messieurs,” he boomed, drawing the crowd into silence with his powerful baritone. “Without further adieu I invite Monsieur Michel de Grandpre and Monsieur Mathieu le Pique to board their chosen balloons. As they do so I warn you all to remain vigilant throughout today’s proceedings. The gentlemen will be firing upon each other’s balloons with blunderbusses in order to punch holes in the fabric of the balloons. Thus bringing their opponent crashing to the ground by the uncontrollable escape of gas. The duel will not begin until both balloons reach a height of half a mile so please do not crowd onto the open area before you. If you do so trying to get a better view you may inadvertently be crushed as the loser crashes to Earth.

“The winner, as should be evident, shall be the man whose balloon remains afloat the longest. Upon landing he shall receive a smile from the lovely Mademoiselle Tirevit and whatever other gratuities he can eke out of her.”

The crowd laughed amicably and Superintendent Bernard turned to make sure that both men and their seconds were aboard their balloons. When he received the nod from both men he signalled to his assistants. The ropes tying the balloons to the ground were released with quick haste and the ballast was thrown from the balloons by the duelist’s seconds.

 

The crowd cheered as the balloons began their ascent and both duelists waved and smiled like they weren’t about to do something utterly stupid.

“You are aware that a man is likely to be seriously injured or perhaps worse?” Mademoiselle Tirevit’s fiancee asked unable to believe what was about to occur. His Fiancee had been saying for a month that she had a fantastic surprise to show him in the gardens. He never expected it to be anything quite so unordinary.

“I told you my dear they never gave me an opportunity to speak. I cannot be held accountable for these gentlemen if they are so eager to act upon their own childish whims.”

 

Monsieur Le Pique held onto the wicker basket with white knuckled fear. The balloon was barely a foot off the ground but he had never experienced something so maddening. He had only agreed to such a ridiculous duel because he wanted to make a mockery of the high society. But it had backfired and the gathered crowd proved that they revelled in this kind of ostentatiousness. Nobody he knew had been stupid enough to join him as his second. So he didn’t even know the name of the man who controlled his balloons ascent and would arm him when the time came and if necessary take over the duel.

He was too frozen in fear as the balloon rose to do anything but hold on for dear life with his eyes tightly clenched.

 

Monsieur de Grandpre on the other hand opened a bottle of wine as soon as he climbed into his carriage and poured two glasses. One for himself and the other for his best friend Monsieur Philippe Monnier who had jumped at the opportunity to be his second once more. Especially in a duel that would surely be talked about throughout history. Neither of them could pass on the opportunity to celebrate considering they were already guaranteed to come out as the victors.

 

The two balloons rose at near to equal speed ascending to a height of almost half a mile or thereabouts. Without an altimeter to produce a measurement it was entirely guesswork on the part of all involved. But it was Superintendent Bernard who made the final decision, firing his pistol into a bale of hay as the signal to the men above that the duel was set to begin.

 

Monsieur le Pique heard the gunshot from below and moved as quickly as he found himself able so that he could get the duel over with and return to the comfort of stable ground. With his eyes still firmly closed until the last possible second he tentatively released a hand from the death grip on the basket and reached behind him.

“G… Gu… Gun please,” he muttered finding his throat as tight as his nerves.

His second wordlessly passed him the blunderbuss and he wrapped his hand around the smooth wooden handle as vigorously as his other hand held onto the basket. He brought the enormous pistol up to his chest and forced the stock into the crook of his shoulder. If the shot wasn’t life or death he simply would have fired one-handed and kept hold of the basket with the other. Considering it was the most important shot of his life however, he released the basket and quickly grabbed the barrel of the blunderbus to steady his aim. The opposing balloon filled his vision as his eyes opened and he didn’t let them stray to the beautiful scenery below that would have only caused to increase his panic.

It should have been impossible for him to miss such an enormous target considering the balloons hadn’t drifted any further apart than the eighty yard gap they had started with. But as he squeezed the trigger and the blunderbuss kicked with powerful recoil he watched the shot sail wide to the left of the balloon.

The last thing he saw before clenching his eyes closed was Monsieur de Grandpre raising a glass above his head in salute.

 

“I told you Philipe,” Monsieur de Grandpre said with a laugh as he raised his glass to his rival, “the fool would be too scared to pack his own shot and wouldn’t even notice the gun is defective.”

He handed his wine glass to Philippe and picked up the blunderbuss from between his feet. Aligning his sights on the centre of the other balloon he fired without a moment’s hesitation.

The steel ball burst a hole hole through the fabric directly along the joint of two panels tearing the seam apart. The split rapidly expanded as escaping air burst through and within moments the balloon had collapsed and was plummeting towards the ground.

 

Mademoiselle Tirevit gasped as it became obvious that Monsieur le Pique’s balloon had been punctured and he was certainly on his way to death. Why the thought hadn’t crossed her mind earlier that the loser was certain to die she didn’t know.

Equal cries of despair and shock rang out from the crowd as it immediately scattered. Even though they had dutifully stayed back to give space in the event that a balloon was struck down in such a manner the duel was over so there was no need for them to risk their lives by staying about.

“Come my dear we must depart,” Mademoiselle Tirevit’s fiance pleaded taking her by the arm.

“No, I am responsible. I must watch until the end,” she replied watching Monsieur le Pique’s balloon descend with rapidity.

Moments before it struck the ground with a sickening thump her fiance finally decided enough was enough and turned her away. When she turned back the deflated balloon collapsed over the basket so that nobody would have to see the dashed bodies. She glanced up to find Monsieur de Grandpre’s balloon ascending and drifting away instead of returning for him to claim his kiss.

“We really should go my love,” her fiance said. “It appears that the winner doesn’t even intend to return to claim your kiss. Much to my delight.”

Mademoiselle Tirevit looked at the balloon upon the ground one last time. What a foolish man to have given his life in the pursuit of a prize that neither man would attain. That was the folly of man after all; to aim always beyond his grasp.

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