The Man in the Fireplace

by Shivver [Reviews - 1]

  • Teen
  • None
  • Missing Scene

Author's Notes:
This story is based on the episode "The Girl in the Fireplace." Familiarity with that episode is recommended.

The real title of the story is "L'Homme dans la cheminée" but apparently no one will read it if it has a French title.

"Reinette? Reinette! I should think that you have not heard more than one word in ten that I have said!"

The remonstrance in Louise's voice brought Reinette out of her reverie. Trying to remember the words of only a moment ago, she realized that she had been going through the motions of practicing on her mandolin, but her mind had been wandering, she knew not where, and she had indeed not heard a word that Louise had said. Looking up, she saw that the other girl had paused in her embroidery, her hand still holding the needle above the frame as she stared at her friend, peeved.

"What? Oh! I am sorry, dearest Louise. I do not know where my mind has got to. Pray continue." She played a few notes, pretending to tune her instrument. "You were saying...?"

"...that Mademoiselle Allaire told me that Monsieur Rioux has been going out at night and no one knows where, though one of Madame Gombert's kitchen maid swears that she saw him in her house, creeping towards Jeanette's door. Now, would not that be a proper scandal?"

"Oh, certainly! I am sure everyone is already talking of it!" But Louise had known her friend long enough - nearly ten years now, since the time they were both nine years old - to tell that she was still miles away. The reply came after a pause, and her voice had no animation. Louise stabbed the needle into the cloth and dropped her hands into her lap.

"Reinette." Louise's soft plea, followed by a sigh, caught her friend's attention. "You are not happy. You try so hard to appear happy and please everyone, but today, you cannot. And all my chatter does not distract you. What is wrong, my love?"

"Nothing, Louise, nothing at all," was the immediate rejoinder, but Reinette caught herself. "No, you can tell. It is no use to lie to you." She smiled sadly, then breathed deeply. "I... I suppose that I am simply preoccupied by the betrothal."

Louise nodded. "I understand. But certainly your father will handle all the articles. He is a shrewd man, and will ensure that his daughter's future will be bright and comfortable."

Reinette laid aside her mandolin, then nervously smoothed the wide skirt of her gown and seemed to brush aside a loose blonde hair. It was immaculately styled in a high bun, so any imperfection must have been imaginary.

"It is not that. It is that... Oh, Louise, I think I do not want to marry Charles." She rushed on before her friend could reply, but she noted that her friend was not surprised by the statement.

"Oh, I know that this marriage is the best thing for me right now. He brings so much money and rank, and it helps restore Father's respectability. And I shall be able to move among such higher circles. But... Oh, Louise, he is so dull and plain. I do not love him. Love cannot be the sole basis for an advantageous marriage, but I had so hoped there would be a little room for it."

"He loves you a great deal, Reinette. Surely that should count for something. He will dote on you and provide you the best life you could imagine. And he will introduce you at court, which is all you have ever wanted."

"Yes, and from there, to find the ear and bed of a nobleman, the only avenue open to those of low birth like me..."

"Like us."

"Yes, like us."

Louise sighed. "At least you have a good chance of it, the prettiest girl in Paris, and the cleverest. What hope is there for poor ugly me?" She smiled wistfully. She was a pretty girl, but she was rarely noticed next to the lovely, enchanting Reinette.

Reinette laughed and waved dismissively. "You have suitors enough and will find your way to court in your own time, I am sure you will." She looked around the sitting room, at the fine china and paintings on display. "I just wonder, is this the right way? Is the path ahead too dearly purchased, at the cost of love? And if I am successful, if I do find a nobleman who will take me as his mistress, how that will devastate poor Charles! Must I sacrifice both our lives to this ambition?"

Louise pushed the embroidery frame aside and moved to sit next to her friend, taking her hands. "Dear Reinette. I know how you feel. But you must also ask yourself, are you ready to sacrifice your ambitions, your future, for love of a son of a tax collector, or lawyer, or a merchant? Would you be satisfied with that and no more?"

Reinette looked up into the eyes of her friend. She had been on the verge of tears, but the emotion cleared and she smiled. "No, you are right. There is more to life than settling for the rank you were born into." She patted her friend's hand. "Thank you, Louise. You always set me straight."

"Someone has to keep you in reality. Otherwise, the admiration of the people will carry the Little Queen away into the clouds." Her tone changed to one of playfulness and teasing. "Besides, when have you ever cared about love? In all the years I have known you, you have never once shown favor to any of the young men who have passed our way, high-born or low."

A shadow crossed Reinette's face for a brief moment before she replied in kind with, "You are certainly right! There has been no man I have loved," but quick Louise caught it. She nudged Reinette's shoulder with her fingertips.

"No, no, I saw that. You did have a fancy for someone, and you never told me!" Reinette blushed, something that Louise had seen her do a scant few times. "Come on, you must tell me. Who was it? Jean Cloutier? No, it could not be him. Etienne Rougeux? Come on, at least give me a hint!"

Reinette endured a few more questions, looking more sheepish each time, until she whispered, "I shall tell you if you promise not to laugh."

Louise lowered her voice to a matching whisper, and said with solemnity, "Of course. I promise not to laugh."

"All right." Reinette swallowed, then stared at her hands as she spoke. "There never was a man I loved. The one I loved... I made him up."

She spoke faster, as if afraid of being interrupted. "I do not know when it started, when I first dreamed him up. I was maybe six or seven. He would… I pretended he would come to me every night in my bedchamber, stepping out of the fireplace, to check the fire and look for monsters under my bed. He'd make sure I was warm, and if there were monsters, he'd wave his magic wand and scare them away. He was... I called him... the fireplace man.

"He was so tall and handsome, and charming, and he was mine. I think he was English, for I remember his accent. You do not think me a traitor to the crown for loving an Englishman, do you?" She laughed lightly. "For a time, I would run to bed as soon as I could so that he would visit. I am sure Mother thought I had gone quite mad, running to bed almost right after supper, every night."

Reinette looked at her friend's face and could see the amazement in her eyes, could almost read her thoughts. How could this be possible, she must be thinking, that worldly, rational Reinette, with all her book learning and pragmatic education, who had never fallen in love with a real young man, had fallen in love with a phantom?

Reinette sprang to her feet, startling Louise. "Here, let me show you something." She led her friend out of the sitting room, to her study. The room contained her books and writing desk and clavichord, but she led her friend to a display case containing all of her childhood dolls: fourteen immaculate lords and ladies with broad ivory faces and long, powdered wigs, glittering gilt coats and gowns of all colors, arranged neatly on the shelves. Each doll had a golden placard with the name of the noble of the French court it represented. Louise had seen them before, but had paid them no mind. She had never seen Reinette play with the dolls, or even look at them.

"Mother bought me these dolls. I used to play with them, when I was alone, but I always found them... frightening. I pretended that they were the villains, the monsters. The hero was this one."

Opening a drawer at the bottom of the case, she pulled out a well-worn doll, cradling it gingerly in her hands. Taller than the other dolls by about a head, it had a thin, tanned face and brown hair cropped close to the head, and wore a plain brown frock over a chemise of deep blue, devoid of ruffles or gilding. Its brown trousers reached to its shoes, unlike the other male dolls, whose fashionable knee-length breeches exposed white silk stockings. Louise initially drew back from the odd, dirty, commoner's doll, then collected herself and leaned in to view it more closely.

Reinette gave a timid smile. "I insisted that Mother have this doll made for me, when she had given me that lot. She had to send it back three times until the toymaker got it right. 'Cut off the hair and make it brown; remove the gold and the lace and the stockings. Make the trousers long. Yes, she wants it to look like a peasant, I do not know why, silly girl…' He finally got the face just right - narrow, not like those dolls - but refused to not make it of ivory. Mother eventually had to send it to another toymaker to have it painted over."

She gestured at the display case. "Those would menace me, or hide and jump out to scare me. They were coming to take me away forever. And the fireplace man" - she held up the treasured doll - "the fireplace man would appear, and vanquish them."

Staring at the doll's face, she absentmindedly smoothed the brown frock. "I kept him with me whenever I was alone. I would talk to him - he listened so well - and he comforted me. He taught me not to fear the monsters and the nightmares. He was the nightmare that the monsters feared, and he would protect me always."

Another timid smile. "Now isn't that silly?"

Louise stroked the doll's hair with one finger, then put her arm around Reinette. "Silly? That is beautiful, Reinette! Your white knight. I think it is beautiful - he is beautiful. But why do you keep him in the drawer? He should be in the display case."

"No. He is an old thing. I forgot about him as I grew up. I saw Father come home from exile and work so hard to try to regain his reputation, even though he was innocent. I started studying with the tutors and masters, and their books taught me that there are no protectors, no knights on white steeds who appear out of nowhere and defend you. And where I am going, where I want to go, to the sea of sharks that is the French court, I must swim for myself."

Reinette stared in the direction of the display case, but her eyes were distant and sad. Her left hand closed around the doll, tight but gentle, as if holding on to a fragile dream.

"But I do believe I truly loved him. I have not met anyone like him. How can a real man even compare?"

She snapped back to the present, and gazed at her friend. "I do not know when he stopped visiting, when I stopped pretending. I found the doll in the drawer one day and realized that I had not even thought about him for years. With rational thought, I knew he was a childhood fancy, meant to ward off the terrors of the night. When reason prevails, I do not need a phantom to protect me. Perhaps he left when Father returned."

Reinette smiled, the intelligence returning to her eyes. "The display case is for real people, not imaginary ones." She replaced the doll in the drawer, then, changing the subject, chatted quietly with Louise about the other dolls.

"Mademoiselle? Your mother wishes me to inform you that you should be preparing to go. The dinner is at the Fauquier estate."

Reinette turned to the footman now standing in the study's doorway and nodded. "Thank you, Jacques. Please tell her I am going directly, then order the carriage to take Mademoiselle Louise home." Reinette bade goodbye to her friend and retired to her dressing chamber.

. ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ .

An hour's dressing with her lady's maid and Reinette was prepared for the dinner outing. A simple dinner did not require her best gown, but she had selected it nonetheless. Charles would be there, and anything she could do to sweeten the reward would only ease the drawing up of the marriage articles. A low neckline, a multitude of jewels in the lace, short sleeves exposing alabaster arms would all do well.

As she descended the main staircase, she took a quick inventory. It was a habit of hers, to make sure everything was in its rightful place. "Necklace… yes. Earrings... yes, both. I am glad Marie found the match. Purse… Oh, my purse! Jacques, tell Madame Poisson that I need to run upstairs for a moment!" Holding up her full skirt, she turned and ran back up the stairs.

Reinette strode down the long hallway towards her bedroom. It had been expanded and remodeled twice since she was a little girl, as she felt she deserved a finer chamber, with space enough for a large bed, a vanity, and her harp, and a large adjoining dressing room. She had kept her old fireplace, however. It always comforted her.

As she approached, a voice emanated from her bedchamber which brought her to a dead halt. A tenor voice, speaking French with a decidedly English accent.

"Reinette? Just checking you're okay."

Her heart leapt for a moment, but she quickly dismissed the fancy. I must be hearing things! she thought. It must be all this talk of him from this afternoon, playing tricks on me. She shook her head to clear the panic, then resumed walking to her bedchamber, though her step was no longer as quick as it had been. An arpeggio fluttered from the harp as she reached the door, and, with a nervous deep breath, she stepped into the room.

His back was to her, but he was unmistakable. The messy brown hair, short, not at all like the high French fashion of wigs with long, white, perfect curls. The short brown frock, the long trousers which covered his stockings. The oddly white shoes. And so tall and slim, yet... not as tall as the child Reinette remembered him. The fireplace man stood before her, in bright daylight, and this was impossible.

He does not exist, and yet, he is here. But if there is one thing he taught me, the monsters are only nightmares. Man or phantom, I am equal to it. She straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat.

The fireplace man spun around. "Oh. Hullo. Er, I was just looking for Reinette. This is still her room, isn't it? I've been away, not sure how long."

Not sure how long? It has been twelve, maybe thirteen years since… A horrible scene flashed before her eyes, one she had forgotten but was now so clear, of a six-foot ivory doll hiding under her bed, wanting to take her away, attacking the fireplace man, who subdued it and whisked it into the world beyond the fireplace. But the man… he looked exactly the same as he did twelve years ago!

From downstairs, her mother's voice called, "Reinette! We're ready to go!"

Her eyes lingered on the fireplace man's face as she saw first comprehension then surprise flit across it. She half-turned her head towards the door, while keeping her eyes on him. "Go to the carriage, Mother! I will join you there."

All her years of training, as an accomplished actress and as an ambitious young woman - to suppress her hopes and misgivings, to appeal to men while hiding her true thoughts and feelings - served her well. Despite the thumping of her heart, threatening to burst from her chest, she maintained her calm composure and turned playful.

She approached him. "It is customary, I think, to have an imaginary friend only during one's childhood. You are to be congratulated on your persistence."

"Reinette! Well." His eyes took her in from head to foot, lingering briefly on the changes that had happened since her seven-year-old self. "Goodness, how you've grown."

"And you do not appear to have aged a single day." And indeed, he did not. He appeared as handsome as she remembered. She took special care to appear detached and coy. "That is tremendously impolite of you."

"Right, yes, sorry." He took a step back. "Listen, lovely to catch up, but better be off, eh? Don't want your mother finding you up here with a strange man, do we?"

It took all her force of will to keep her countenance as the realization hit her: he was just as confounded as she was. He was expecting seven-year-old Reinette, not nineteen-year-old Reinette! Especially not nineteen-year-old Reinette in full bloom of youth and dressed to ensnare what she had not yet captured of her suitor's heart. He was out of his element, at least for the moment, and retreating to higher ground under the guise of maintaining propriety. How can the fireplace man be confused and uncertain? He cannot be simply human. But my heart is brave and we can meet as equals.

"Strange? How could you be a stranger to me? I've known you since I was seven years old."

"Yeah, I suppose you have. I came the quick route."

What did that mean? No matter. I must now dispel the phantom or prove the man. Stepping towards him, she raised her hand to cup his cheek. It was soft and warm.

"You seem to be flesh and blood, at any rate, but this is absurd. Reason tells me you cannot be real." She continued to gaze into his eyes, searching for the man or the phantom.

"Oh, you never want to listen to reason."

The footman's voice interrupted them. "Mademoiselle! Your mother grows impatient."

"A moment!" Reinette called behind her. She fixed her gaze on the face of the fireplace man. "So many questions. So little time."

Throwing her arms around him, she kissed him deeply, pushing him against the fireplace. She felt him stiffen in surprise, then melt as his passion joined with hers. His hands closed around her back, but she had not the time. Pulling away, she only could spare a glance to see him leaning dazed against the fireplace before she ran out of the room, stopping only to fetch her purse from the vanity.

. ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ .

Reinette counted herself lucky that her father was in the carriage, for otherwise she would be called upon to furnish conversation with her mother. As it was, she was left to the leisure of her own thoughts.

The fireplace man lived! The same as she remembered, emerging from the fireplace - her protector, her guardian angel. He was as real to the touch as any other man. He was not a dream, a phantom, a child's made-up playmate.

And yet, that also meant, those other creatures, behind ivory masks with heartbeats like ticking clocks, must exist, too. And they wanted her, wanted to take her away. Not then. They had not found her "complete" then. And they had not been back yet. When will they find her complete? When will they come back?

She tried to convince herself that they could not exist, that it was not rational. But if they didn't exist, then the fireplace man could not either. He exists to protect me from them. Without the threat, there is no need for the salvation.

The echo of the kiss lingered on her lips, and that of his warm hands on her waist. She felt her love for him burning in her heart, and knew the flame burned in his, too. And yet, she also knew that she would not see him again soon, possibly not for years. Maybe not ever- No! I know he will return, to protect me. He is the monsters' nightmare, my white knight. I have that at least. But is it enough? Is it enough to know that he loves me, as I love him?

She stared at the tasselled edgings of the carriage window for half the journey, thoughts and images of him whirling through her mind, until she could answer the question.

Yes. It is enough.

What was that he said? He took the quick route? She could travel the slow path with fortitude knowing that her love for him was reciprocated. She could do what she needed to do - marry Charles, play the games of politics and love, attract a noble or, if she could dream, a king, secure herself a future - while she dreamed about the man in the fireplace every night.

"Mademoiselle? We have arrived."

She placed her hand in the footman's as she descended from the carriage. Charles approached to greet her, bowing low. She realized that she had never looked at him before except to criticize, to disapprove, to measure him and find him wanting, compared to that impossible standard. Now, she saw he was a pleasing man, hopelessly infatuated with herself, but kind, educated, cultured. Perhaps she could not love him, but she could certainly like him. And he would take her places even the fireplace man could not.

"Monsieur d'Etioles. I am pleased to see you again. Is there much time before dinner? Let us go to the gardens. I would have a path we could walk together."