Paris, France, May 1911
Eva dashed around the corner, whirling by the splashing fountain on the place Pigalle at exactly half past two. Intolerably late now, she clutched the front of her blue plaid dress, hiked it up and sprinted the rest of the way down the busy boulevard de Clichy, in the shadow of the looming red windmill of the Moulin Rouge. People turned to gape at the gamine young woman—ruddy cheeks, wide, desperate blue eyes and mahogany hair blowing back and tangling with the ruby-colored ribbon on the straw hat she held fast to her head with her other hand. Her knickers were showing at her knees, but she didn't care. She would never have another chance like this.
She darted past two glossy, horse-drawn carriages vying for space with an electric motorcar, then she turned down the narrow alleyway just between a haberdashery and a patisserie adorned with a crisp pink-and-white awning. Yes, this was the shortcut Sylvette had told her about, but she was slowed by the cobblestones. Too far from the sun to fully dry, the stones were gray and mossy and she nearly slipped twice. Then she splashed through an oily black puddle that sprayed onto her stockings and her black button shoes the moment before she arrived.
"You're late!" a voice boomed at her as she skittered to a halt, her mind whirling in panic.
The middle-aged wardrobe mistress looming before her was ominously tall, framed by the arch of the backstage door behind her. Madame Léautaud's bony, spotted hands were on the broad, corseted hips of her coarse velveteen black dress. Her high, lace collar entirely covered her throat, lace cuffs obscured her wrists. Beneath a slate-colored chignon, her large facial features and her expression were marked by open disdain.
Eva's chest was heaving from running, and she could feel her cheeks burn. She had come all the way down the hill from Montmartre and across Pigalle on her own. "Forgive me, madame! Truly, I promise you, I came as quickly as I could!" she sputtered, straining to catch her breath, knowing she looked a fright.
"There can be no simpering excuses here, do you understand? People pay for a show and they expect to see a show, Mademoiselle Humbert. You cannot be the cause of our delay. This is not a particularly good first impression, when there is so much to be seen to just before a performance, I can tell you that much!"
At that precise moment, Eva's roommate, Sylvette, in her flouncy green costume, and thick black stockings, tumbled out into the alleyway beside her. Her face was made up to resemble a doll, with big black eyelashes and overdrawn cherry-red lips. Her hair, the color of tree bark, was done up expertly into a knot on top of her head.
One of the other girls must have told her of the commotion, because Sylvette was holding an open jar of white face powder as she hastened to Eva's rescue.
"It won't happen again, madame!," Sylvette eagerly promised, wrapping a sisterly arm across Eva's much smaller, slimmer shoulders.
"Fortunately for you, one of the dancers has torn her petticoat and stockings in rehearsal and, like yourself only a few moments ago, our regular seamstress is nowhere to be found or I would send you on your way without another word. Oh, all of you wide-eyed young things come down here thinking your pretty faces will open doors only until you find something better, or you trap a gentleman of means from the audience to sweep you off your feet, and then I am abandoned."
"I am a hard worker, madame!, truly I am, and that will not happen. I have no interest in a man to save me," Eva replied with all of the eager assurance that a petite country girl with massive blue eyes could summon.
Madame Léautaud, however, did not suffer naiveté, ambition or beauty gladly, and her halfhearted protestation fell flat. Sylvette this morning had warned Eva?she could be out on her delicate backside and returned to their small room at la Ruche (so named because the building was shaped like a beehive) before she could conjure what had hit her if she didn't convince the woman of her sincerity. Sylvette had worked here for over a year and she herself was only a chorus girl in two numbers, an anonymous background figure-one who never made it anywhere near the bright lights at the front of the stage.
Three dancers in more lavish costumes than the one Sylvette wore came through the door then, drawn by their mistress's bark. They were anxious to see a fight. In the charged silence, Eva saw each of them look at her appraisingly, their pretty, painted faces full of condescension. One girl put her hands on her hips as she lifted her eyebrows in a mocking fashion. The other two girls whispered to each other. It brought Eva back swiftly to the cruel Vincennes hometown rivals of her youth-girls for whom she had not been good enough, either. They were one of the many reasons she had needed to escape to the city.
For a moment, Eva could not think. Her heart sank.
If she should lose this chance.
She had risked so much just to leave the city outskirts. Most especially, she had risked her family's disapproval. All she wanted was to make something of her life here in Paris, but so far her ambitions had come to very little. Eva looked away from them as she felt tears pressing hard at the backs of her eyes.
She could not risk girls like these seeing her weakness. At the age of twenty-four, she could let no one know that she had yet to fully master her girlish emotions. There was simply too much riding on this one chance, after an unsuccessful year here in Paris, to risk being seen as vulnerable.
"You hope to be a dancer perhaps, like one of them?" Madame Léautaud asked, indicating the other girls with a sharp little nod.
"Because it has taken each of them much work and hours of practice to be here, so you would be wasting more of my time, and your own, if that is your intention."
"I am good with mending lace," Eva pressed herself to reply without stuttering.
That was true. Her mother had, in fact, fashioned wonderful creations since Eva was a child. Some of them she had brought with her to France from Poland. As a legacy, Madame Gouel had taught her daughter the small, careful stitches that she could always rely upon to help pay the bills once she had married a nice local man and settled into a predictable life. Or so that had been her parents' hope before their daughter had been lured into Paris just after her twenty-third birthday. This was the first real job opportunity Eva had managed to find, and her money was nearly gone.
Sylvette remained absolutely silent, afraid to endanger her own tenuous standing here by saying a single word more in support.
She had given Eva this chance-told her the Moulin Rouge was short a seamstress because, with all of the kicks and pratfalls, the dancers were forever ripping or tearing something. What Eva made of it now in this instant was up to her.
"Very well, I will test you, then," Madame Léautaud deigned with a little sniff. "But only because I am in dire straits. Come now and mend Aurelie's petticoat. Make quick work of it, and bring me the evidence of your work while the others are rehearsing."
"Oui, madame." Eva nodded. She was so grateful that she suddenly felt overwhelmed, but she steadied herself and forced a smile.
"You really are a tiny thing, like a little nymph, aren't you? Not altogether unattractive, I must say. What is your name again?" she asked as a casual afterthought based on what Sylvette had told her.
"Marcelle.MarcelleHumbert," Eva replied, bravely summoning all of her courage to speak the new Parisian name that she hoped would bring her luck.
Since the day she had arrived alone in the city wearing her oversize cloth coat and her black felt hat, and carrying all of her worldly possessions in an old carpet bag, Eva Gouel had been possessed by a steely determination. She fully meant somehow to conquer Paris, in spite of the unrealistic nature of such a lofty goal. Hopefully, this first job would mark the beginning of something wonderful. After all, Eva thought, stranger things had happened.
Madame Léautaud tipped up her chin, edged by a collar of black lace, turned and walked the few steps back toward the open stage door, beckoning Eva to follow. It was then that she caught her first glimpse of the hidden fantasy-the inside of the famous Moulin Rouge.
The walls beyond the door were painted entirely in black, embellished with gold paint, in flourishes and swirling designs. Red velvet draperies hung heavily, flanking the walls, so that from this distance the place had the appearance of a lovely, exotic cave. It was a strange, seductive world into which Eva was so tentatively about to step and, in that moment, her heart raced with as much excitement as fear.
She tried not to look around too conspicuously as she followed. She was ringing her hands behind her back and her heart was pounding. She was not at all certain how she would steady herself enough to guide a needle through thread.
Behind the stage, it was a dark and shadowy space even though it was mellowed by the light of day. She smelled the odor of spilled liquor and faded perfume. It was actually a little ominous, she thought, but that made it all the more exciting. As more costumed dancers passed her, coming and going toward the stage, she began to recognize them from the posters that were plastered brightly throughout the city. There was la Mariska the ballet mime, Mado Minty the principle dancer and the beautiful comedienne Louise Balthy, who was both Caroline the Tyrolean Doll and la Négresse. There was Romanus the animal trainer, Monsieur Toul with his comic songs and the troupe of Spanish dancers in their short red bolero jackets and black fringed hats.
Eva had never been sure what she would do if she actually ever saw one of these celebrated performers up close, much less met them. The prospect was frightening and yet thrilling at the same time.
What if Madame Léautaud rejected her now that she had come this close? Would she be forced to return to the city outskirts? No, she would not let that happen. She would not go back to Vincennes. But if she stayed in Paris with no job there would be little else for her. Louis's proposal that they become lovers, and he would therefore take care of her, might become her only option.
Poor Louis. He had been her second friend in Paris. Sylvette had introduced them. Since he was Polish, and her mother was, as well, and they all lived at la Ruche, their friendship had been quickly cemented. The three of them had been inseparable since.
Eva was with Louis earlier that day when she had to sneak away for her interview at the Moulin Rouge. She had made a weak excuse about having forgotten something she needed to do, just before she left him, and dashed around the corner. He was standing there unfastening his portfolio of watercolors outside the door of Vollard's shop barely hearing her for anxiety over a fortuitous meeting of his own. AmbroiseVollard was the famed art dealer just up the hill on the cobblestone rue Lafitte and, after months, he had finally agreed to see some of Louis's work.
Louis, whose real name was Lodwicz, had been studying at the Académie Julian, painting in the evenings and selling cartoons to La Vie Parisienne to pay his rent. The fact that his wonderful Impressionist-style watercolors did not sell, but his cartoons did, was a source of frustration to him.
Louis had loaned Eva money and regularly bought her dinner this past year to help see her through financially. She did not want him as a lover but she did not want to let him down, either. Loyalty meant everything to her.
Now, Eva stood before Madame Léautaud in the dressing room behind the stage as she examined the hem Eva had just mended.
"I can't even see the stitches or the rip, your work is so fine," she exclaimed with a mix of admiration and irritated surprise. "You may begin with us this evening. Be back here by six o'clock and not a moment later. And do not be late this time."
"Merci, madame," Eva managed to utter in a voice that possessed only a modest hint of confidence. A group of theater technicians and stagehands walked past, chuckling.
"During the show you will stand in the wings. Sylvette will show you where so you will be out of the way. If one of the performers needs a costume repair you shall only have a moment to mend a hem or reattach a button, cuff or collar. You're not to tarry, do you understand? Our patrons don't pay good money to see torn costumes, but they don't like an interruption in the flow of the acts, either."
Then Madame Léautaud leaned a little nearer. In a low tone, she murmured, "You see, Mademoiselle Balthy, our wonderful comedienne, has put on quite a bit of weight. We can only draw the corset in so tightly, yet she can be relied upon to split her drawers during one of her exaggerated pratfalls." Madame Léautaud bit back a clever smile and winked.
A moment later, Eva was back in the grimy alleyway, feeling the utter thrill of victory for the first time in her life. As she hurried back to the rue Lafitte to catch up with Louis, she thought the sensation she had felt a little like flying.
Eva took the funicular up the hill and dashed as quickly as she could back to Monsieur Vollard's shop. It had been wonderful to have a Polish confidant in Paris these past months-someone who understood her thoughts and her goals in ways that did not require French words, and she had no wish to endanger that now by abandoning a friend.
Louis was like a brother to her, though she knew he wished it to be more. But they were too alike to be suited for one another. He was reliable and kind, and since she'd been in Paris, Eva needed that far more than romance.
Poor Louis, tall and pale with dust-blue eyes, living in the shadow of Eva's potent dreams. He still had not lost his thick Polish accent. Nor did he long for the sense of city style as she did. He still carefully waxed the ends of his beige mustache, wore a stodgy top hat when he went out, his favorite single-button cutaway jacket and two-tone ankle boots, which had all been fashionable a decade ago.
Still, it was Louis who had created the name Marcelle for her and she would be forever grateful because Marcelle had clearly brought her luck. Over wine at a small country brasserie, Au Lapin Agile, tucked cozily on a little hill in Montmartre, Louis had playfully proclaimed her to be thoroughly Parisian by giving her a name that sounded entirely French.
She had giggled at the new incarnation, but she had instantly liked it, too. It felt whimsical and freeing to be someone else, and there was such exciting power in that. Marcelle could possess an air about herself that Eva could not. Eva was cautious and meek. Marcelle would be carefree and confident, even a little seductive. She had even mastered the proper singsong city accent and altered her wardrobe with little touches to reflect some of the newer fashions, like calf-length skirts and high-waist belts.
Louis told her that she had a nose like a button, small and turned up at the end. She knew her blue eyes were bold and big, and that her long dark lashes framed them. She was petite and slim and he told her the overall effect was an alluringly innocent quality. But Eva did not feel innocent at all. Inside she was a powder keg of determination just waiting to experience life.
She longed to be a part of the vibrant new age in Paris, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies-Bergère. The famous Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan were both drawing huge crowds at the Trocadéro, and two years earlier, the well-known dance hall performer Colette had kissed another woman so passionately onstage that she had nearly caused a riot. Ah, to have seen that! Paris was positively alive, Eva thought, a place pulsing with brash young artists, writers and dancers, all eager as she was to make their mark.
Everyone was reading de Maupassant or Rimbaud, for their realistic portraits of life, and also the radical work of two new Parisian poets, Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire. Eva loved Apollinaire's work best for how daring and edgy it seemed to a conservative girl from the suburbs. A passage from his poem "The Gypsy" long had contained her fantasy of a wild, exciting life in Paris.
We knew very well we were damned,
But hope of love along the way
Made us both think
Of what the Gypsy did prophesy.
In spite of the steady uphill climb back to Montmartre, Eva was skipping past the string of little shops along the cobblestoned rue Lafitte, beaming like a child as she arrived at Vollard's shop. Louis saw her through the street-front window. A little bell tinkled over the door as he opened it and came outside.
"My meeting is already finished?I couldn't even introduce you as my good luck charm. You knew what this meeting meant to me. Where the devil did you go?"
"I found myself a proper job! It's only a seamstress job but it's a start. I wanted to surprise you."
All seemed instantly forgiven as he drew her up into his long slim arms, and twirled her around so that her plaid skirt made a bell behind her.
"Oh, I knew you would find something eventually!"
When Louis set her down he drew her to himself and held her tightly against his bony torso.
She sensed him remembering the boundaries of their friendship as he took a single step backward, the color rising in his pale cheeks.
"That's such wonderful news. And, as it happens, I have a surprise for you, too-now we must celebrate!" He smiled, revealing crooked yellow teeth.
He held up two tickets as his dim smile broadened. "They are for the Salon des Indépendants tomorrow afternoon," he said proudly.
"How on earth did you manage them? Everyone in Paris wants to go to that!"
The coveted tickets were nearly impossible to find. Eva had always been too poor and too common to partake in much of what Paris had to offer, so it was all just a fantasy, the glamorous life only a fingertip away. Though she wasn't entirely thrilled with having to spend the afternoon alone with Louis, now she had the chance to attend the famous Salon des Indépendants! It was one of the most important art exhibits every year and all of the young artists in the city vied to have their work exhibited among the paintings of those who were more well established. Anyone who was anyone in Paris would be there.
"My boss at the newspaper got the tickets for his wife. It turns out she finds some of the artists too vulgar for her taste."
Eva giggled. She would be the absolute envy of Sylvette-and everyone else at the Moulin Rouge. It was simply beyond her to turn down the offer.
They walked along the Parisian lane that snaked its way around the butte de Montmartre, its gray slate roofs and peeling paint welcoming them as a light mist began to fall. Strolling happily, they passed a stall brimming with boxes full of lush, ripe fruit and vegetables. The sweet fragrance mixed with the aroma of freshly baked bread from the boulangerie next door.
Eva glanced up at the Moulin de la Galette beyond, with its pretty windmill. Yes, all the pretty little windmills, and the secret cobblestone alleyways around them, hiding the dance halls and brothels of that seamy neighborhood that shared space with vineyards, gardens and herds of sheep and goats. Up the other way was the place Ravignan, which had become quite famous for the many artists and poets who lived and worked up there at that crumbling old place called the Bateau Lavoir.
She pushed off a shiver of fascination.
"Shall we pop over to la Maison Rose for a private little celebration before we head home?" he asked. "And afterward, perhaps you'll allow me a little kiss."
"We've been all through that. You really must give up the idea." She laughed, making sure her tone was sweet.
"Well, then you shall become my muse, at the very least, if not my lover." He smiled. Nothing, not even her rejection of his advances, could seem to spoil their two personal victories today. "I need one now that Vollard has actually bought one of my paintings. That is my other big surprise."
"How wonderful!" she exclaimed. "Then a French muse is fitting. Not a Polish one, at least," she countered with a happy little smile.
"Tak, pięknadziewczyno," he answered her in Polish. Yes, beautiful one. "A French muse. Every good artist needs one of those to inspire him."
By night, the Moulin Rouge was a different world than what Eva had seen earlier that day-the glitter of bright lights, the strong smell of perfume and grease paint, the hum of activity. It was thrilling to be even a small part of the backstage enclave.
Trying to keep out of the way as stagehands and actors dashed back and forth past the racks of costumes, Eva stood in the wings with wide-eyed amazement. She was struck by the diverse crowd of performers, everyone chattering, whispering, gossiping, and many of them drinking. To ward off stage fright, they laughingly declared.
Eva noticed that their brightly colored costumes were surprisingly garish. They were certainly cheaply made and sewn. Her mother long ago had taught her to know the difference. Close up, she could see the patches, the repairs, the soiled collars and dirty stockings. It was a disappointment, but she did not let it detract from the absolute thrill she felt at merely being here. It was all so exciting, this vibrant, secret world of performers!
Eva tried to be inconspicuous as she waited for her moment to be called upon. She clasped her hands to keep them from trembling, and her heart was pounding. She recognized all of the performers. Mado Minty breezed past her first, in an emerald taffeta costume with flared hips, cinched waist and a tight bodice. Across the way, near a rack of hats and headdresses, stood the celebrated comedienne Louise Balthy, with her distinctively long face and dark eyes. She was eating a pastry.
As Madame Léautaud had predicted, Eva was called upon several times during the performance to dash in with needle and thread.
Suddenly, she felt someone stumble over her foot.
"Hey, watch what you're doing! Do you not know who I am?"
Eva jolted at the sharp voice when she realized that it was directed at her. She glanced up from her sewing basket and saw a beautiful woman wearing an elegant costume, rich in detail. She looked just like her posters and Eva would have known her anywhere. This was Mistinguett. She was the current star of the Moulin Rouge.
"I?I'm sorry," Eva stuttered as the tall, shapely performer glowered down at her.
Where do they find these people?" The young woman sniffed as she straightened herself and brushed imaginary lint from the velvet bodice of her costume.
"Two minutes, Mistinguett! Two minutes till your next act!" someone called out.
"Sylvette! Where the deuce are you?"
Her harsh tone turned heads and, an instant later, Eva's roommate dashed forward, clearly in mid costume change herself, but bearing a full glass of ruby wine.
"I'm sorry, mademoiselle, I was just in the middle-"
"Sylvette, I don't give a rat's tail what you were in the middle of."
Eva did not move or speak as she watched her roommate reduced to blanch-faced subservience. When the moment passed, she lowered her eyes and, feeling a bit shaken, went back to her needle and thread.
The performance went on, and Eva continued to make costume repairs. A torn sleeve, a popped button. But in the end it was Mistinguett, not Louise Balthy, who split her drawers in a high kick. She stormed off the stage and cast an angry glare at Eva.
"And what are you staring at?"
The sudden question hung accusingly between them. Oh, dear.
She hadn't been staring, had she? Eva could not be certain.
Mistinguett glowered at her as a young wardrobe assistant held her hand so she could slip the torn drawers down over her lace-up black shoes.
"Forgive me. I was only waiting," Eva replied meekly.
"Waiting for what?"
"For your drawers, mademoiselle.So that I can mend them."
"You? I've never seen you here before!"
"I may be new here, mademoiselle, but I am experienced with a needle and thread."
Mistinguett's fox-colored eyes widened. "Are you mocking me?"
"No, certainly not, Mademoiselle Mistinguett."
Eva could feel the heavy weight of stares from some of the other performers, in their many varied costumes and headpieces, as they passed by her. They knew better than to stop, however, when the temperamental star was angry.
"Well, see that you don't!"
Mistinguett pivoted away sharply. "Do be quick about it. I have my big number in the second half."
Eva thought, for just a moment, that she should sew the drawers loosely so that Mistinguett would split them a second time in the same evening. But she quickly decided against the clever tactic. She needed this chance too desperately. For now, a reprisal would have to wait.
Once the crisis had been averted, Mistinguett went off with a tall young man with thick, thick blond hair that was slicked back from his face in a wave. "Who is that?" Eva asked Sylvette as she waited to go on for her second number.
"His name is Maurice Chevalier. He dances the tango with her late in the second half. But talent certainly isn't how he got the job." She winked and Eva bit back a smile.
There was so much happening in this glorious place. So many acts, so many personalities and so many names to memorize. For the moment, Eva was holding her own. All of the sewing mishaps had been seen to for the moment.
As the performers filed backstage to relax during intermission, Eva dared to steal a peek around the heavy velvet stage curtain.
Her heart quickened to see such a huge audience crowded into the theater. She looked over a sea of silk top hats, stiff bowlers and fedoras. There wasn't an empty seat in the place.
As Eva scanned the well-dressed crowd, her gaze was drawn to a group of dark-haired young men, exotic looking and dressed in varying shades of black and gray. They were seated prominently at the table nearest the stage. The tabletop was littered with wine and whiskey bottles and a collection of glasses, and she could hear from their animated conversation that the group was Spanish. They slouched in their chairs, periodically whispering, drinking heavily and trying, like errant boys, to behave themselves until the show resumed. There was a heated air of something tempestuous about them.
But one stood out boldly from the others. He was a powerful presence, with his long, messy crow-black hair hanging into large eyes that were black and piercing. He was tightly built with broad shoulders, and he wore wrinkled beige trousers and a rumpled white shirt with the sleeves rolled past his elbows, revealing his tan, muscular arms. His jacket was slung over the back of his chair. He was incredibly attractive.
Surely the man was someone important since he was sitting at the front of the dance hall. As she turned away from the curtain, Eva thought how interesting it was that there was no beautiful woman beside him. A man who possessed such a powerfully sensual aura, and such penetrating eyes, must have a wife. A mistress, at least.
She almost asked Sylvette if she knew his name, but then suddenly the orchestra music flared for the second half of the show, and she heard Madame Léautaud shouting for her. Fanciful thoughts would have to wait since there was work to do, and Eva was determined to make a success of this job.
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