From a Paris Balcony

By: Ella Carey


Boston, 2015

The small green chest was concealed at the back of the wardrobe. Its hinges were made of brass that must have shone once, but now it was roughened with amorphous black spots. A key was bound to the lid, almost endearingly, Sarah thought, with layers of old sticky tape whose edges curled under a canopy of dust. Sarah had no idea how long the chest had lain there, wedged underneath a pile of her father’s moth-eaten sweaters, alongside his other hoarded little treasures—the pipes that he used to sneak out into the garden to smoke and the stained yellow tobacco tins that he always reused for fishing hooks. Sarah hesitated to open the curious little box for some reason. But that was ridiculous, because not a soul would know or care if she did. She had no family left at all.

Her sentimentality about unlocking this secret was even more ironic given that she curated the possessions of the dead for a living. Sarah was hardly unused to opening precious things left behind. In the end, she adopted the determination that she had assumed so often as a matter of necessity over the last tumultuous year and slid her nails under the tape. The key felt small and cold in her fingers when she inserted it in the lock. She pulled at the lid and stared at the contents. Or the content. Because there was only one thing in the box.

An envelope. And across this envelope, written clearly in the blue ink of a fountain pen, were both a name and an address that were perplexing in themselves—Viscount Henry Duval, Ȋle de la Cité, Paris. Postmarked 1895.

Sarah took the letter over to the window that looked out over the genteel Boston street where she had grown up. Blossom petals floated from the stately trees that lined the grand street below. Nannies pushed expensive new strollers along the sidewalk, dodging the inevitable well-tailored office workers and the usual array of women who looked like they lunched. But none of this could draw Sarah in, not today. She turned back to the delicious little mystery in her hands instead.

Viscount Henry Duval had been veiled in intrigue for Sarah since she was a girl. The name was linked forever with Sarah’s family, tied up with a tragedy that had captured her imagination when she was young.

The death of Sarah’s great-great-aunt in the midst of a glamorous party in Paris during the Belle Époque had never been fully explained, as far as Sarah was concerned. Louisa Duval had, so the story went, jumped out of a window one night in Paris and died on the pavement below. Even though the mysterious young woman’s death was declared a suicide, the circumstances had never been investigated.

The more Sarah had asked her father for details, the more she realized how little he knew. She hadn’t had much time for curiosity in the last few months, having been confronted with a triple tragedy of her own: the deaths of both her parents, and her husband leaving for good. Now, as she worked through her parents’ vacant apartment, the resurfacing of her ancestor’s mystery tickled her mind. These older ghosts had a more comfortable distance than the painful, fresh ones right now.

There had always been an assumption that Louisa killed herself. But had this enigmatic young woman, from whom Sarah was descended, really taken her own life?

The more Sarah had thought about it, the more she wondered if there was a reason it had been kept quiet. What on earth was her father doing, hiding away a letter addressed to Louisa’s husband in a decrepit green box?

But Sarah was late for a meeting and there was no time to linger over distant events. She had already missed some work over the past few months, and, while she was not directly involved in the new exhibition that was about to open at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where she worked, she had to go or she would wind up in trouble.

Sarah tucked the letter inside her handbag, took one last look at her parents’ apartment—it would have to be sold—locked their heavy front door, and slipped down the front steps into the street.

It wasn’t until that evening that she had the chance to pull the timeworn envelope out of her handbag. She had been accosted by emails and interruptions at work all afternoon, and while her thoughts had wanted to turn to Henry Duval’s letter, she had forced herself to remain focused on her job.

Sarah poured herself a glass of wine in her galley kitchen and moved across to her living room, with its picture windows overlooking the Charles River. The days had started to lengthen, and she didn’t need to turn on the lamps that she had bought after Steven had left during Boston’s last cold, icy winter, but she switched the lights on anyway. She loved the warm glow they created.

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