Authors: Elizabeth Ross
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Ross
Jacket photograph of girl copyright © 2013 by Kelly Miller
Jacket frame illustration copyright © 2013 by Pomme Chan
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ross, Elizabeth (Elizabeth Anne)
Belle epoque / Elizabeth Ross. — 1st ed.
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Maude Pichon, a plain, impoverished girl in Belle Epoque Paris, is hired by Countess Dubern to make her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, look more beautiful by comparison but soon Maude is enmeshed in a tangle of love, friendship, and deception.
[1. Interpersonal relations—Fiction. 2. Conduct of life—Fiction. 3. Beauty, Personal— Fiction. 4. Social classes—Fiction. 5. Runaways—Fiction. 6. Paris (France)—History — 1870-1940—Fiction. 7. France—History—Third Republic, 1870–1940—Fiction.]
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There are two ways of spreading light:
to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
ERFECT, JUST PERFECT
He scrutinizes me, his suit pinching across his rotund torso, and I assume that this is Monsieur Durandeau, but he doesn’t introduce himself. Instead he walks around me in a circle as I stand still and awkward in the middle of the sitting room. A faint perfume lingers in the air.
no one has ever described me like that before.
I glance down at my grubby hem and scuffed boots. What I see is a stray, a runaway—just another waif on the streets of Paris.
A younger man, tall and handsome, with a square jaw and waves of brown hair, pops his head around the door.
“Laurent, come in.” Durandeau beckons him over and nods toward me. “What do you think?”
The young man approaches and looks at me like he’s sizing up a prize heifer. This is supposed to be an interview, but neither of them is asking me questions—am I a hard worker, can
I cook or sew? They haven’t even asked my name. I think back to the job notice, now crumpled in my pocket.
YOUNG WOMEN WANTED FOR UNDEMANDING WORK
PPLY IN PERSON TO THE
VENUE DE L
I assumed the work would be like any other position offered to a young woman without connections—washing linens, starching collars, scouring pots and pans. But now a buzzing fly of doubt pesters me.
The younger man gives his appraisal. “Not spectacular.” He pauses. “Perhaps for the Dubern contract?”
“Exactly!” Durandeau bellows. “Remember, the countess asked for a light ornamentation. You don’t want to deck out a debutante like a society matron.”
A countess? I look from one man’s face to the other, trying to fathom what it is they think I’m perfect for, and decide that somewhere I must have lost the thread of conversation. My stomach growls and my eyes dart from theirs. I’m feeling woozy; no wonder I’m confused. I have started to skimp on food the last few days. It’s only been a few weeks since I arrived in Paris and I’ve already spent most of my francs on a dingy garret room. Turns out running away was the easy part; it’s struggling to get by day in, day out, that’s hard. Maybe I should have stayed in the village and accepted the fate Papa arranged for me. I wouldn’t be hungry, that’s for sure, not as the butcher’s wife. I salivate imagining the goose, pheasant and duck hanging
in Monsieur Thierry’s shop. But then I think of my supposed husband—not a day under forty, with hammy forearms and a dangerous smile.
“Yes, I think she’ll do nicely,” Durandeau says, bringing his hands together in a decisive clap, which causes his double chin to tremble. “We’ll show her at noon. See what the countess says.”
Standing silently, I can’t help but take my own inventory of Monsieur Durandeau. I’m reminded of a pigeon: his short legs strain to hold that barrel of a body, and his fat chest puffs out of a pearly satin waistcoat.
After Laurent is dismissed, Durandeau finally finds his manners. “What is your name, young lady?”
“Maude Pichon.” My voice is husky, I’ve been quiet so long.
“Pichon … what kind of name is that?” he asks. “Where are you from?”
“Poullan-sur-Mer.” He looks doubtful, so I elaborate. “It’s a village in Brittany.”
“That would explain the accent, but we can work on that.”
I can feel the hackles of my Breton pride quiver. “What’s wrong with my accent?”
But he answers my question by posing another. “What age are you? Sixteen, seventeen?”
He nods. “And your parents?”
“My parents are dead.” A half lie; my father might as well be dead to me. I cannot go back home. Not only did I thwart his marriage plans for me, I stole all the money in the shop till. It seemed like a fortune at the time, but everything in Paris costs more than I could have imagined.
“How tragic,” he says insincerely. “So you read one of our announcements. We haven’t had much luck with them. More delicate phrasing was required, in retrospect.”
The job notice was thin on information, but work is work—how flowery should a help wanted notice be?
“Now we have Laurent as a recruiter of sorts. He’s charming and sympathetic. We’ve had much better results that way.”
His ambiguous statements bother me, and I finally muster some courage. “Monsieur, what is the job exactly?” I ask.
“The pay is more than fair,” he continues, ignoring me. “We’ll sort you out with an adequate wardrobe. I’ll send you down the corridor to our seamstress, Madame Leroux. She should be able to get you something more appropriate to wear before the clients arrive.” He wrestles a five-franc coin from his pocket and presses it into my hand. “Welcome to the agency,” he says.
I forget my unanswered questions as I stare at the gold coin in my palm. My spirits lift. I have the job? I’m delighted and dumbfounded at the ease of this feat as Durandeau ushers me out of the salon and down the corridor at a march.
Madame Leroux is mumbling to herself as she picks stitches out of the sleeve of a dress. Piles of fabric and dresses in various stages of repair or creation hang around the room. Spools of different-colored thread are stacked precariously like tiers of wedding cake. She uses her teeth to bite at some unwieldy stitch.
“No way to run a business … making fine dresses out of cheap material.” She tuts and glances up at me, as though the
choice of material is my fault. Her hair is wild and unkempt; the strands falling into her eyes like my father’s draft horse. Tutting again, she puts down her work and approaches me.
“Let’s have a look at you. Arms out.” She takes out her tape measure and wraps it around my various dimensions in practiced strokes. “You’re thin as a whip. Do we have anything you won’t drown in?”
Self-conscious, I look away. I’ve always been slim, and despite the culinary reputation of the city, I’ve shed weight since coming to Paris.
She walks toward a rail of hanging dresses and begins to flip through them. I crane my neck to see. “Why do I have to change my clothes?” I ask.
Madame Leroux stops and turns to look at me, affronted. “We can’t have you representing the agency in that!” She nods to my simple navy dress and continues looking for a replacement. I squeeze the coin Durandeau gave me and let my mind wander. Working for a countess, I’m probably going to serve in a great house as a maid, or maybe as a governess. Then it strikes me that the dresses hanging on the rack don’t fit this fantasy. They’re not made of practical cotton or wool in hues of gray or black. Instead they’re colorful and fancy, made of satin and taffeta.
“These clothes don’t look like uniforms, madame,” I say, curious to get a hint as to my new position.
She turns around, pink-faced and triumphant, brandishing a dark green velvet dress with puffed sleeves. “That’s because they’re all one of a kind, silly. There’s nothing uniform about my dresses.” Her response doesn’t shed any light.
She ties me into a corset, which feels like a punishment. Then a bustle, like a tail, is fitted around my hips. I step into the skirt and the seamstress helps me with the bodice, making quick work of the umpteen tiny buttons. She nudges me toward the mirror and my face falls when I see how the color of the dress drains my complexion. I imagine what my mother would think. She loved clothes—not that she got to wear fine things working at the village store. I remember the chenille cloak she would wear to church, and I have a recollection of a calico print at a picnic. If she were alive and here right now, I’m positive she wouldn’t have picked this dress. With their exaggerated poufs, the sleeves make my shoulders look broad; my nonexistent chest is flattened to oblivion. I turn to the side and see that the bustle has added inches to my rear, making my waist look even skinnier. I feel ridiculous.