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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 womanruddy 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 Leautaud'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, ma-dame! 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 naïveté, ambition or beauty gladly, and her halfhearted protestation fell flat. Sylvette this morning had warned Evashe 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 figureone who never made it anywhere near the bright lights at the front of the stage.
Three dancers in more lavish costumes than the one Syl-vette 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 youthgirls 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 Leautaud 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 chancetold 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 Leautaud 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 Syl-vette had told her.
"Marcelle. Marcelle Humbert," 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 carpetbag, 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 Leautaud 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 fantasythe 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 thread through a needle.
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 principal 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. Ambroise Vollard was the famed art dealer just up the hill on the cobble-stoned rue Laffitte 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 Leautaud 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 Leautaud 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 Laffitte to catch up with Louis, she thought the sensation she had felt was 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 monthssomeone 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.