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By Trial and Error

Chapter Text

May, 1906

 

Spring took a long time arriving in Paris in 1906; Nicole thought that maybe Spring had taken a detour to visit her lover in Nice, leaving Parisians disgruntled and morose like some kind of common Londoners. There was no doubt in Nicole’s mind that Spring was a woman, with how capricious and erratic she was.

Walking outside the enormous tents defining the arena, a toddler in her arms and a little girl clutching her left hand, Nicole looked longingly at the green meadows unfolding before her with lilies of the valley, forget-me-nots, and wild daffodils painting the landscape in a harmonious mixture of whites, blues, and yellows. She hasn’t had the opportunity nor the time to get out into the country since… since last summer – god, could it have been that long?! – and being confined in the city all these months made her crave the quiet and the greenery of the French countryside. With warmer weather finally gracing everyone with its presence, Nicole decided it was high time to make the effort to leave Paris for a few days.

“Pew pew, piff paff,” the toddler wiggling in her arms, making absurd noises, brought Nicole back to the two girls in her custody. Little Ève was remarkably energetic even for a two-year-old and – unlike her older sister and their mother – interested in all things artistic, colorful, or musical. Her short black hair was styled into a bowl-cut right above her ears, her inquisitive dark brown eyes – much like their father’s – were looking around at the cacophony of noises and the mélange of people.

Irène, the older of the two, nodded her head emphatically, “I liked the lady sharpshooters, too!” 

Ohhhh, so maybe little Ève wasn’t making nonsensical noises after all.

“What did you like about them?” Nicole spurred the girl on. Irène, seven years older than Ève, was a spitting image of their mother; her curly chestnut-brown hair was combed in an untamable mess to just below her ears and her facial expression was typically serious, even when they were discussing exciting attractions the kids love. Half the time Nicole felt as if Irène was judging her in her mother’s stead, as the little girl’s most common mannerism was to pull her chin down and look at you from underneath her strong brows.

“The trajectory of their bullets and the accuracy of their shots was astounding. The number of forces acting on a bullet combined with the trajectory corrections while both the marksman and the target are in motion, turned it into a fascinating case study in Newtonian physic,” Irène responded to an enthusiastic, “pew, piff!” from her little sister.

With the girls’ mother’s entire life revolving around science, Nicole swore to instill in them the joys of visiting amusement parks and exhibition shows, luxuriating in fine cuisine, and enjoying simple pleasures like riding in a fast auto-mobile, especially now, after their father passed away. Based on Irène’s answer though, Nicole has failed miserably with the older sister already.

Perhaps there was still hope for Ève.

“What else did you like, ladybug?”

“Big cow! Mooo!” Ève responded, clapping her tiny hands enthusiastically.

“Ah, the bison. Mighty beasts! Although I should think they sound more like, arrrghmooo,” half imitating a wolf’s howl and half a cow’s mooing, Nicole blew a raspberry on the little girl’s arm, earning a delighted squeal in return. 

“Do we have the bison in France, Aunt Nicole?” Irène interrupted their buffoonery. “I’ve never seen one before.”

“They used to be plentiful throughout Europe but the men hunted them nearly to extinction. There is a small population of bison that survived to this day in East Prussia – maybe your mother can take you girls to see them next time you’re in Poland,” Nicole knew there was a little chance of spotting a bison in the wild but both her and the girls’ mother made it a priority to ingrain in them the love for their lost motherland. Same as Nicole, both girls were born in France to a Polish mother and a French father but the faith and perseverance of the Polish diaspora made sure that its sons and daughters harbored love and devotion to the homeland lost to the Partitions over a century before.

They reached Nicole’s parked auto-mobile quickly, the machine not having to stand in a line of horse-drawn carriages waiting to pick up their owners. The auto-mobile was Nicole’s newest purchase, only a few months old, and her pride and joy – a 1906 Type Y vehicle, painted bright red that stood out on the Parisian streets and complimented Nicole’s red hair, drawing many curious looks. Ever since the Renault brothers begun the production of personal auto-mobiles, Nicole has been their biggest fan.

“No roof,” came Ève’s request and although Nicole was keenly aware of their mother’s stipulation that she never drive with the roof down with the girls inside, she was also quite incapable of denying them anything. Nicole deposited Ève on the front bench, next to the steering wheel, and walked Irène around the auto-mobile to open the passenger door for her.

She unfastened the roof on each side, much to Ève’s delight, and folded it all the way to the back of the vehicle, “All right, but you know the rules. Stay seated on the front bench and no jumping around, yes?”

Both girls nodded earnestly and solemnly, although Ève’s eyes were shining with mischief.

Pulling her tweed flat cap more securely over her head as not to lose it to the wind while driving, Nicole skillfully maneuvered between the pedestrians and horse cars, driving away from the arena. Once she reached a relatively straight stretch of the road leading from the outskirts of the city to Paris, Nicole pressed the gas pedal down and upshifted, reaching 40 km/hr. She knew her new Type Y could reach staggering speeds of over 60 km/hr – she knew because she’s already pushed it to its limits within her first week with it – yet 40 km/hr was fast and exciting enough for her two younger passengers, while still remaining reasonably safe. 

The large chestnut trees, planted in equal intervals on each side of the road, rushed past them in a blur of white blooms and a pleasant buzz of zap, zap, zap. The wind blew all around them, tangling Irène’s already wild hair. Ève, as was her custom while driving with Nicole, extended both of her tiny arms towards the sky to feel the gush of air push them effortlessly every and each way.

Driving south through Montmartre had always been one of Nicole’s favorite approaches towards the city; the Eiffel Tower, constructed when she was just a kid, now seemed to stand protectively above the City of Light, both a beacon and an anchor for Nicole with all of its 7,300 tons of steely glory. Dropping into the city proper, Nicole downshifted and slowed down, mindful of other users of the busy, and often narrow, Parisian streets.

As they crossed the Seine over the Neuf Bridge to the Left Bank, Ève began to recognize her surroundings again. “No home yet,” came a quiet request, which Nicole was entirely prepared for.

“Of course, ladybug. How do you girls feel about going to the Luxembourg Gardens and getting some flavored ices?” The possibility of the girls ever saying no to sweets was less than zero and so Nicole confidently directed the car towards rue de Condé even before she heard the excited squeals from Ève and words of endorsement from Irène.

After a right hand turn onto rue de Vaugirard and a few short minutes of traveling through a narrow gorge of tall buildings on each side of the street, Nicole pulled up to her townhouse, located directly opposite the park. It was modest in comparison to the family mansion she had grown up in, yet as soon as she was legally allowed, she purchased this unassuming property for the views it offered as much as for the unpretentious and less snobby atmosphere of this neighborhood.

A short walk away, the Luxembourg Gardens were abuzz with Parisians basking in the first rays of sunshine; women dressed smartly in colorful skirts, with their elaborate hats and parasols protecting them from excess sun; men in drab black or dark gray suits, presenting such a dichotomy to the more cheerful attire of their female companions; and kids – kids running around in large rascal groups, laughing, screaming, and shrieking without a care in the world.

With flavored ices in hand – Ève chose the strawberry flavor, likely for its showy color, while Irène, quite predictably yet sensibly as always, went with plain cream – the sisters grabbed Nicole’s hands and the trio made their way towards the large pond in the center of the park. Irène liked watching the toy sailboats float and Nicole didn’t mind soaking up some long-awaited sunshine and enjoying the view of a late tulip bloom – not to mention the bloom of just as many beautiful women, flourishing after a long winter. And what a view that was!

Sounds of splashes from the pond brought Nicole’s attention back to the girls. Judging upon the wet sleeves of Irène’s dress as well as the bright red stains on Ève’s face, she decided the girls have had enough fun for one afternoon – not too much, merely enough

Nicole walked the girls back to their home in the Latin Quarters, a short distance away from her own townhouse. She wasn’t in the slightest concerned about their disheveled appearance; with it being barely past 5 o’clock, chances of their mother being home from work were slim to none and their governess would have plenty of time to bathe them, change their clothes, and untangle their (but mostly Irène’s) hair.

Good thing Nicole didn’t bet on horseraces; as they entered the second-story apartment, Marie emerged from her study.

“Mama, mama!” Ève wiggled away from Nicole’s hold and ran towards her mother. Marie scooped the girl up and brought her into a close embrace, throwing an accusing look – with a solitary raised eyebrow – at Nicole. If she was hoping Marie would be distracted enough not to notice the sorry state of her children, she was mistaken yet again.

Trying to salvage the situation, Nicole encouraged the older sister, “Tell your mama about the toy sailboats we saw on the pond today, Irène. What was the name of that force you explained to me made them float?”

“It was buoyancy, Aunt Nicole.” Addressing her mother, Irène continued, unfortunately in the opposite direction than Nicole had intended, “We also saw the Wild West Show, mama. I want to be like Annie Oakley when I grow up.” She punctuated her statement with a firm, assured nod.

For being such an exceptionally intelligent child, Irène sure quickly forgot the conversation they had this morning about keeping their outing a secret. Either that or she enjoyed seeing Nicole squirm. All Nicole could do was send her friend the most charming smile in her arsenal and hope for the best.

“And who is this Annie Oakley?” Marie inquired, her thick Eastern European accent transforming the name into something resembling, “Ani Okli.”

“She’s an American sharpshooter, mama,” Irène responded, while Ève added her imitation of gunshot noises, “piff, paff!” 

“I see.”

“We saw her riding a horse and shooting at various moving targets with an astounding accuracy. It was quite an interesting study of Newtonian physics – I think you’d have enjoyed it.”

“The girls need strong female role models?” Nicole offered after being measured by Marie for far too long, the intonation of her voice raising in question involuntarily.

Putting Ève down, Marie sent her daughters away, “Go find Ms. Zosia and have her bathe you both.” Addressing Nicole, who was hoping to be off the hook and half ready to bolt out the door, she added, “Join me for a stirrup?”

“It’s called a night-cap in French, Marie.” Nicole feigned exasperation at her friend. Marie’s habit of using Polish idioms translated verbatim into French or English was looked upon with fondness by those closest to her but often caused confusion and misunderstandings.

Marie just waved her off dismissively and started walking towards her sitting room. They shared a strange friendship, Marie and her – over a decade separated them in age; the Haughts came from old money, whereas the Curies had barely made ends meet in recent past; Nicole liked fast cars and beautiful women, while Marie was devoted to her scientific career and her recently deceased husband; even their common Polish roots were providing more of a conflict as of late, with Nicole voicing her support to the revolutionary actions, which were strongly opposed by a pragmatic Marie. Nicole’s mother, may she rest in peace, had been Marie’s close friend during their school years in Poland and they rekindled their friendship after Marie moved to France at the age of 24. After Nicole’s mother passed away five years ago, Marie had continued to pay Nicole visits, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, perhaps out of habit.

Nicole followed Marie to the sitting room, yet the very nature of their unconventional friendship provoked – quite uncommon for Nicole – a sense of uncertainty and tentativeness. Was she in trouble for taking the girls to the Wild West Show? Or was this to be merely a pleasant conversation and a drink in a company of a good friend? Who knew? Certainly not Nicole as she warily took a seat on the edge of one of two old frayed yet exceptionally comfortable armchairs. 

Between pouring two sizeable servings of vodka-based lemon liquor, Marie handed her a official-looking letter. Scanning it quickly, Nicole got a gist of it, “Your application to the Cracow University was denied. Again.”

“Read it till the end,” Marie prompted, sitting down in an armchair next to Nicole and handing her a glass of liquor.

After a minute of scanning the page, Nicole felt her blood pressure raising, her cheeks undeniably turning red in indignation, “They’re not even hiding it this time! They’ve denied your application solely based on you being a woman! Have those fools not seen the fucking Nobel Prize listed in your accomplishments?” 

“Language, Nicole,” always proper, always polite, Marie chastised.

“Pardon my French, Marie, but this is complete bullshit.” Nicole took a minute to collect herself, “I’m sorry. I know you were hoping to be able to move back to Poland and continue your career there, especially now with Pierre gone and the girls growing up so quickly.”

“Well, hope is the mother of fools and I cannot afford to appear a fool. Especially not now.” Marie took a deep breath and continued somberly, “I was offered Pierre’s position as the chair of the Physics Department at the Sorbonne today.”

Nicole was left speechless. 

“Wait. This is good news, right?! Why are you not excited?”

“The University of Paris does not have a single female professor – not just the Physics Department, mind you, which denied me a position on multiple occasions, but the entire University. Now they want to give not just the professorship but the chairmanship to me, after Pierre’s gruesome death barely a month ago?” Marie shook her head sorrowfully, “I feel like it is charity, like they are offering the position to a poor widow, whereas they were really intending on having Pierre’s name attached to the new laboratory they are constructing.”

Nodding her head reflexively, Nicole forced herself to stop, “Does the means matter, Marie?”

Her friend looked at her, puzzled, “What do you mean, means?”

Nicole chuckled, “Does it matter how you arrive at something? I mean, yeah, accepting the position right now may feel cheap but imagine how much you’ll be able to accomplish once you’re in there? Imagine how many misogynistic asses you’ll be able to kick daily just by simply giving lectures and presiding over an entire department.” That finally earned her an amused smile. “I bet there are some wealthy donors out there who would gladly contribute scholarship funds to support a female-led laboratory,” Nicole smiled broadly.

Marie pondered it for a couple of minutes, as was her habit – her words were typically well thought out. “I suppose you are right. I could finally teach classes at the Sorbonne and with the free reign over the new laboratory that is nearly complete, I could create a world-class facility focusing solely on the outstanding research,” Marie lowered her voice nearly to a whisper, which she was also prone to doing when she appeared lost in thought and was simply saying things out loud. “I could dictate the new hires based purely on applicant’s qualifications, not their outwardly attributes.”

Certain she had given Marie enough of a push in the right direction, Nicole took a minute to really look at her friend. Her pinned-up hair, wiry and wild as it was, has lost a lot of its dark blonde pigmentation in the month since Pierre’s death. Other than her dark attire, which she preferred regardless, Marie showed no outwardly signs of grief; after Pierre was killed in a freak accident by a horse carriage, she’s thrown herself even more into her research.

“It is decided, then,” Marie announced. “I will accept the position.”

“Splendid! Cheers to that!” Nicole raised her glass. “Now that you’ll have that brand-new sparkly lab at the Sorbonne, what will you do with the dilapidated shed you and Pierre used for your research?”

“I am not sure yet… I will certainly need help moving some of the old equipment…”

“I’ll be more than happy to help,” Nicole offered immediately. “If you’re not going to use it, do you mind if I did?”

“What do you need a research facility for?”

Barking out a laughter, Nicole said, “Marie, that shed could barely qualify as a potato shack! But… uhm… I was just thinking I could use a shed, you know… for my auto-mobile?” God, why was she tripping over her words?! Because that didn’t sound suspicious at all, Haught!

“Ah, that horseless carriage of yours. I swear it is a devil’s machine!”

“Oh, come on, Marie! You discovered radioactivity – something nobody can see and I’m still not sure what it really does or means – yet you’re puzzled by a simple combustion engine?” Nicole laughed out loud, bewildered. “We should try to conquer that fear of yours and have you ride with me. Who knows, maybe we can even teach you how to drive one.” 

“I appreciate your concerns but fiacres and omnibuses are plentiful in Paris as will be the subterranean Métropolitain trains, once they finish that never-ending construction,” Marie was quick to respond. After pondering for a minute longer, she added, “Well, all right. I suppose no harm will come from you tinkering on your newest toy in my shed. And by your toy, I mean your horseless carriage – do not bring your lady friends over to impress them in my shed. I have enough rumors spread about me in the city to last me several lifetimes!” she acquiesced, teasing Nicole with a fond and only slightly exasperated expression on her face.

“Thank you, Marie,” Nicole responded with a beaming smile. 

“Now. Do not think you are off the hook. Tell me exactly what that Wild West Show was the girls were talking about and admit you drove them with the roof off. I will be untangling Irène’s hair all the way until tomorrow.”

“Oh… uhm…” with the most charming yet innocent smile Nicole could procure, she delved into the parts of the exhibition she though Marie would have appreciated herself.