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HE first saw her in a photograph, a thin girl astride a bicycle. One hand rested on a bare thigh, the other seemed poised above her breasts. Her hair and eyes were very dark, the lips slightly parted. All this had been in the spring of 1904, in a Paris that we shall always remember.
The photograph had been taken by a Russian friend, a pale youth named Vadime de Massloff. Like Gray, he had originally entered this city the year before, after failing to meet expectations at Oxford. By winter they were living across a narrow courtyard from one another, and often meeting for drinks in the evenings. Although a gifted photographer, de Massloff often found himself photographing nudes to pay the rent ... hence this obviously suggestive portrait of the young Mata Hari.
In retrospect these days would always come back to Gray in terms of specific impressions: a subdued conversation in a cheap cafe, the skyline in blue light, the feel of a cane in a gloved hand. It had been a cold year, with a premature frost in October. Then came March with hard rain, then at long last April.
According to de Massloff, she first appeared in the last week of April, on a clear day filled with the scent of new blossoms. He had just returned from a midmorning break to find her seated on a low settee in the corner of his studio. She wore a black dress, brown shoes, and a beige coat.
There were theatrical props along the far wall, and at first he had her pose beside an Oriental vase. Next he had her kneel on a cushion with her arms laced across her breasts, her nipples faintly highlighted with rouge. Finally he had her stand beside that bicycle, simply gazing into the camera.
When it was over she quickly put on her clothes, collected her money, and left by a side door. Although she had actually posed for seven photographs, only the one with the bicycle survived the darkroom.
The photograph lay on a sagging table in de Massloff's room. Gray had pulled it from a stack of twenty and tossed the others to the floorboards. Rain had been falling since five o'clock, and although they had both been drinking steadily they had not succeeded in getting drunk.
Gray's first impressions were casual, almost superficial. He might have been talking to himself. "I like this one. Who is she?"
De Massloff had been half dozing in a rattan chair, idly picking loose plaster from the wall. He generally never discussed his nudes. "Who?"
"The girl with the bicycle. Who is she?"
De Massloff shrugged. "Just a girl, Nicky."
"But I like her."
De Massloff slowly turned his head. The Mata Hari photograph had actually been one of a series, all involving bicycles. They eventually ended up with a pornographer in Liverpool. "The composition isn't right," he finally said.
"Really? I wouldn't have noticed."
"And there's no contrast."
"Yes, but she has marvelous eyes, don't you think?"
Regardless of what would be finally said about the painter's introduction to Margaretha Zelle, that first cool evening remained uneventful. Gray and de Massloff dined near the quais among parties of restless young people like themselves. They chatted briefly with another Russian immigrant, then shared a bucket of oysters. Later, as a testament to these simple evenings, Gray would leave several charcoal sketches of sawdust restaurants, several watercolors of blue lightening on the rooftops. Toward midnight they moved on past the river to a languid terrace near the Tuileries. But here there were only the friends of friends, and Gray's tribute to them never seemed quite defined: dark profiles of women in lamplight, gentlemen with only the shadows of smiles. Indeed, it wasn't until the appearance of Zelle that he even came to understand this world.
"You don't happen to recall her name, do you?"
"Whose name, Nicky?"
"That bicycle girl."
"I think it was Maggie."
"Live in the area?"
"Honestly, Nicky, how can I possibly—"
"Because I think I'd like to paint her, you see. I just want to paint her."
They said nothing more about her that night, and quite possibly she might have been forgotten, along with all the other intriguing strangers that Gray had seen since entering this city: young dancers from the Moulin Rouge, flower girls in the Bois de Boulogne, faces in the windows of passing trains. But two days later, while cleaning out a drawer, de Massloff actually found her name among a list of available models. Jotting it down on a slip of paper torn from a magazine, he waited for Gray until the late afternoon.
"Still interested in that bicycle girl?"
Gray nodded. "I suppose, yes."
"Well her name is Zelle. Margaretha Zelle."
"Got an address?"
"Of course," and just as casually, dropped the paper into Gray's open hand.
We know little about her first days in Paris beyond the fact that she lived rather badly in a boarding house near the railway station. Also, she had no friends with money, and her family sent her nothing.
It was a Friday when Gray met her, an unseasonably warm Friday with a southern wind raising a white dust everywhere. Gray presented his card at the door, then found himself in a shabby room below the staircase. A few minutes later Zelle appeared in a pale blue dress with a ribbon in her hair. She was taller than he had expected, and oddly shy when he explained that he wanted her to pose for him.
"Under what circumstances?" she asked.
"In my studio."
She glanced at his hands. "Alone?"
"I'm afraid that's out of the question."
"I'm terribly sorry."
He would always remember the wind, an odd wind, perhaps even an African wind. Shutters were banging all over the neighborhood. People seemed confused. For a while he remained fixed at the window, watching bits of paper whirling below. Then he moved back to the easel and a botched landscape of poplars.
He worked quickly, almost desperately, unable to smear the paint on fast enough. He found that he couldn't seem to stop even when the darker tones began to spread too far, the green too thick.
Until the knock at the door.
He opened it without thinking. She was standing in the half-light, wearing that same pale dress, her hair still tied in a ribbon. He stepped back to let her enter, but apparently she did not intend to stay.
She said only, "I've changed my mind about posing. When shall I start?"
He glanced back at a waiting canvas. "How about tomorrow? Say, eight o'clock?"
She looked up, questioning. "Eight?"
"I'll need the light."
"Very well, but then it's thirty francs, not twenty."
Afterward it seemed that he could not keep from thinking about her, trying to recall the sound of her voice, the way she brushed her hair from her eyes. Toward dusk he left his studio and wandered again, moving with the evening crowds along the boulevard Saint-Germain. The air was moist and cool, particularly among the chestnut trees where in later dreams she would always be waiting for him.
She was very beautiful seated in a rectangle of sunlight, head cocked a little to one side. Even immediately after undressing she hadn't lost that sense of composure. She had simply walked across the room and sat down—obviously certain that he would be compelled to watch.
He worked slowly, carefully, because none of the old tricks applied. Her arms weren't any girl's arms, and the eyes were nearly impossible. He worked with charcoal because this first vision demanded something soft and vague. He hardly spoke, because he could not think of anything amusing to say. During breaks she put on a bathrobe, and he watched her smoke on the balcony. When it was over he watched her from the window, moving between the brickwork.
Soon he simply found himself waiting for her footsteps on the staircase. She always appeared a little late, but never seemed to realize it. If he kept her through the lunch hour she always expected a sandwich. If there was wind in the streets she would waste another twenty minutes brushing her hair. If she talked, she only talked about herself. But when she finally emerged naked again to kneel in that patch of light, he had to admit that she was worth every inconvenience.
"I wonder if you could lift your head a little," he would tell her.
"Yes, thank you," as her presence suddenly filled the room.
By the end of the week he had completed six preliminary sketches, although none was entirely satisfactory. Something continued to elude him, something in the angle of her shoulders, the slope of her back, those eyes. He sketched her again in the afternoon, then once more by gaslight in the evening. He experimented with crayon and a dozen shades of ink ... until he finally caught himself simply gazing at her photograph, wondering if it was even possible to sketch this girl without having slept with her first.
De Massloff sensed the change immediately, first in the trailing conversations, then in the drawings themselves. It was late. He and Gray had returned from dinner to open a bottle of brandy in Gray's room. The Zelle drawings were propped against a wall opposite a wooden chair.
"So this is what you've been doing with that bicycle girl."
The painter grunted. "They're not finished."
"But they're good, Nicky. They're very good." He stepped back to the window and turned up the gas jet. "In fact I'd say that they're your best yet."
Gray shrugged and poured a second glass of brandy. "She's a difficult subject."
"Yes, but you've handled her wonderfully. I particularly like what you've done with the eyes."
"The eyes are shit," and he poured a third glass.
They drank in silence for a while—Gray with a cigarette, staring at the roofs and an indigo sky, de Massloff still gazing at the drawings.
"Do you know something?" de Massloff finally said. "I think that you're getting quite serious about this girl."
Gray looked up above the rim of his glass. "Mmmm?"
"I said that I think you're getting serious about this little bicycle girl of yours."
"I don't know what you mean."
"Ah, but it's right here in the drawings. I can see it."
Gray laid the glass down. "I don't know what you're talking about."
De Massloff smiled. "Yes you do."
He slept badly that night, then woke at dawn to the sound of thunder and hard rain. He spent a long time cleaning brushes and priming a canvas, then settled into a chair by the window to wait. As the appointed hour of her arrival came and went, he began to eye what was left of the brandy. And yes, de Massloff had been right, it was getting serious.
But at some point just before the rain stopped he heard her climbing the staircase again. She entered with a black umbrella. The cold had brought out the color in her cheeks, but her eyes were about the same.
"I thought you weren't coming," he heard himself babble.
"Why? Because of a little rain? I love the rain."
He gave her coffee fortified with brandy, then used the last of the coal on a wood fire. When she finally emerged naked again, he pretended to study an earlier sketch while following her movements in a cracked oval mirror. He had always loved these nonchalant moments between undressing and the formal pose. He loved the way she walked on the balls of her feet, the way she ran her fingers through her hair.
He worked methodically with only the simplest lines. He worked with the shadows, because if you understood the shadows, the form would take care of itself. He used only what he knew best and ignored everything else. He just tried to paint the girl ... until she began to come alive on the canvas—this mysteriously beautiful girl from nowhere.
It left him exhausted, resting in a chair with a glass of cheap wine. She had slipped into her dressing gown and lit a cigarette, but for the first time in days he ignored her.
"Is it finished?"
He nodded. "Nearly."
"May I look at it?"
He nodded again, then shut his eyes and heard her whisper, "But it's really me!"
He took a deep breath. "I'm glad you like it."
"No, Nicky, I love it. It's beautiful, truly beautiful."
She moved back to the wall, and although he still hadn't looked at her, he knew that she was watching. "You should have told me," she said quietly.
"That you could paint like that."
She laid the cigarette aside, swept back her hair. It was raining again. "If you want to paint another I could come back tomorrow." He shook his head. "No, not tomorrow."
But before he could answer she knelt down beside him and took his hand. "Because I really want you to paint me again, Nicky. I really do."
He could not quite avoid her eyes or the lingering scent of her hair. The first kiss was tentative. Then she moved to the bed without speaking, and there were no other sounds from the neighboring rooms ... only the hiss of rain.
He moved to her slowly, consciously trying to ingrain an image of her waiting for him on an unmade bed. After the second kiss she lay very still while he gently ran his hand across her belly, her smooth thighs, her hips. After a third kiss she arched slightly, lifting her breasts to him ...
And later, years later, when they would all say that she had been a remarkably adroit lover, Gray would still remember this relatively shy girl barely stirring when he touched her again.
Like a vision slightly out of focus, there is something elusive about Gray's early portraits of Mata Hari, something that defies definition. De Massloff has said that in the beginning the painter really knew very little about her, and perhaps this is what we see: an exceptionally beautiful girl who might have come from anywhere.
It was half past eight in the evening when de Massloff finally found his friend again—slumped in a chair by the window watching the yellow fog. There were still glasses on the table, blankets on the floor ... but the portrait now stood in the corner, propped against the wall.
"Well, it's absolutely marvelous, Nicky. You have succeeded in making her look like an angel."
Gray reached for a cigarette—one more exhausted gesture. "She's a sweet girl, Vadime."
"And I like her."
"And I definitely intend to see her again."
The fog seemed vaguely yellow now, suspended above pools of rainwater. There were sounds of passing wagons below and the cry of an itinerant vendor.
"Well, at least tell me if you enjoyed it." De Massloff smiled.
"Your afternoon with the bicycle girl. I mean, is she in fact amusing?"
"Shut up, Vadime."
"Oh, Nicky, I'm merely—"
"I said shut up."
He drank through what was left of that night, and hardly moved from the window.
He met her again in the Tuileries. He wore a pale morning coat and dark flannels. Her clothing was slightly less suitable. They walked for an hour, lingering under the ivy, while a carriage continued to circle on the gravel. She told him that her favorite flower was the orchid, although she also favored lilacs and Parma violets.
She became silent along the banks of a willow pond, clutching his arm like the child he would never forget. Further along the damp path she stopped to kiss him on the neck.
"I really shouldn't be keeping you from your work/' she told him.
He smiled. "It doesn't matter now."
"But it does, Nicky. If you don't keep painting, how do you expect to become immortal?"
It was not quite midnight when they returned to his studio. Another fog had risen. She leaned against the cold plaster as he slipped the dress past her shoulders. She shut her eyes when she kneeled to remove her stockings. When he drew her to the bed she pressed his hand against her breast. When he momentarily left her for a cigarette, she called out his name.
De Massloff sat in his room in the darkness with a bottle of cognac and a cheap cigar. He had extinguished the lights an hour ago, and had remained all but unmoving ever since. Earlier, when he had realized that he would not be dining with his friend tonight, he had wandered into the outer streets looking for a prostitute. He had only found a bar, then returned to his room to become this uneasy figure in the darkness.
Margaretha Zelle ... could he believe her? She talked about a previous marriage but never said who her husband had been. She also talked about children but never showed a photograph, and although she claimed that she had traveled extensively throughout the Far East, she actually knew little or nothing of the culture except a few Indonesian dance steps and the words Mata Hari—Eye of the Dawn.
Excerpted from The Man Who Loved Mata Hari by Dan Sherman. Copyright © 1985 Dan Sherman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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