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Authors: Elizabeth Ross

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BOOK: Belle Epoque
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T
HE MOOD IS WILD WITH
the repoussoirs this afternoon. Several of them are going to a charity event on the Champs-Élysées tonight, and boisterous laughter and chatter fill the dressing room. Madame Girard is assisting with some ambitious hairdos, and Madame Leroux is wrestling with the hemming and fixing of gowns. Smells of perfume, powder and sweet tea mingle in the air.

As I brush my hair at one of the mirrors, I catch sight of Cécile in tears. She’s sitting behind me and I watch in the reflection as her blond ringlets shudder, her heavy face red and swollen. It’s unnerving to see her like this, and I take it as an ominous sign; it’s evidence of how the job can treat even the toughest character. I turn around and watch as Marie-Josée approaches her.

“Oh,
ma puce
,” Marie-Josée murmurs. “Come on, it won’t be as bad tonight.” Marie-Josée takes the handkerchief from her sleeve and wipes away the younger woman’s tears.

Cécile sniffs loudly. “It’s not fair. It’s impossible to see him with her.…” She trails off with a convulsion of sobs. I take my time braiding my hair, all the while listening in on their conversation, half guilty, half intrigued.

Marie-Josée continues with her mother hen words, comforting her. “I know it’s hard, but it’s your job to push him to the client. It’s how it’s supposed to be,” she says.

Cécile shrugs off Marie-Josée’s touch, tears streaming down her face. “She doesn’t love him like I do.”

Marie-Josée shakes her head at our inconsolable colleague, then begins to make her way over to me. I turn my attention to the ribbon at the end of my braid and fiddle with it, pretending I wasn’t eavesdropping.

“It’s always somebody’s turn at tears with you young ones,” says Marie-Josée. “Help me with my dress.” She turns her back to me and I undo the hooks with difficulty; they’re tight, and it takes some strength to unfasten them.

“What’s wrong with Cécile?” I ask, prying open the last catch.

She slings the bodice over a chair, then steps out of the skirt of the dress. “Now undo a few laces on this corset,” she tells me. “I can’t breathe.” I do as I’m told, and she sighs with relief when I manage to loosen it. “There’s always one client who’s a cruel mistress, Maude.”

I think back to our earlier conversation and her “nouveau riche” client. “You mean the sort who doesn’t know how to use a repoussoir?” I ask.

“No, worse than that,” she says, taking a seat, and the stool creaks under her. “The kind who smiles and jokes with you in
public, takes your arm, whispers confidences and exchanges coy smiles. But then she turns on you. You are a doll to be thrown across the room in a tantrum. Hearts will be broken and feelings trampled on. You have to be stronger than that.” She nods toward Cécile, who is still sniffling. I let myself stare at her for a moment and try to imagine what exactly happened. Getting caught up in a client’s life until it gets under your skin—it’s an impossible position for a repoussoir. I don’t want that ever to be me.

There’s a knock on the dressing room door and the girls stop talking for a moment. “Is everybody decent?” a calm male voice calls out to a rustle of skirts and muted squeals. “I have wages to distribute.” The handsome man whom Durandeau consulted at my interview walks into the dressing room carrying a box of envelopes. The girls look as though they’re experiencing a chain reaction of skipped heartbeats as he walks past them. Marie-Josée explained that Laurent is responsible for recruitment and accounts. She also told me that he is the reason many of the repoussoirs are here. His good looks and charm are Durandeau’s secret weapon. It’s a tricky task to recruit ugly women, but no girl can be mad at him for wooing her into the agency. No one can be mad at him for anything.

He calls out our names one by one, and the girls give him their best smiles when he hands over their pay—except Cécile, who has a friend collect her wages.

“Maude Pichon!”

A glimpse of him is a treat, but it’s the brown envelope containing my pay that I’m most excited by—it’s the only thing keeping me afloat in Paris.

When it’s her turn, Marie-Josée saunters over to him wearing only her undergarments and a wicked smile, rolls of flesh nearly bursting out of her flimsy cotton chemise. I throw a hand over my mouth, shocked.

“You know, my client came down with whooping cough, so I’m free for you this weekend,” she purrs in his ear. “There’s a new show at le Chat Noir.… How about it, handsome?”

There’s nothing halfhearted about Marie-Josée! I have to hold in a laugh at her utterly brazen banter.

Laurent takes it in stride. He simply smiles and says, “I wish,
ma belle
, but I’m recruiting for the boss. Business is brisk, demand is high.” He lowers his voice. “And I don’t want to make the other girls jealous.” He gives her a smile and even though it’s not for me, my heart skips a beat too.

I watch carefully as he moves toward Cécile and strokes her damp cheek. “Oh,
pauvre petite
, I heard what happened last night. He’s not worth those tears, so chin up, love.” Cécile looks at him through swollen eyes. One residual sob escapes.

The sharp click of footsteps in the hall dampens the high spirits and turns everyone’s attention to the door. It feels as if the temperature in the room cools when Durandeau enters.

Everyone avoids his gaze. I don’t want to be noticed by him either, but I can’t help stealing a look: impeccably dressed in evening tails, he purses his lips and straightens his bow tie in preparation for a speech.

“First the unpleasantries. Mademoiselle Carré.” He glares at Cécile and I feel myself shrink back. “You have let down the agency with your hysterics on the job. You have one last chance
to pull your professional self together or you will be relieved of your privilege of serving the agency.”

Out of the corner of my eye I catch Marie-Josée pulling a face. How could she be so bold?

“Mademoiselle Pichon!” I jump at hearing my name. His beady eyes fix on me and I inwardly cower. “You are to rendezvous with Countess Dubern and her daughter at a boutique of ladies’ fashions tomorrow afternoon. This will give the countess a chance to assess your suitability as a physical match for her daughter.”

My heart stops racing; I’m glad I’m not in trouble. But now the job is real. Lessons with Girard have kept the dread of my first assignment at bay until now. “
Oui
, monsieur,” I manage to say.

“Madame Leroux has a suitable outfit for you. Your transportation has been arranged from the agency by carriage at a quarter to three.” He lifts his lapel to smell the gardenia in his buttonhole. “It is expected you will be a match. Don’t disappoint.” Without another word, Durandeau turns and heads for the door, with Laurent at his heels.

“Thank you, ladies,” Laurent calls out, then blows us a kiss behind Durandeau’s back as he closes the door.

As soon as they are gone, everyone relaxes back into their conversations, but I am silent. A knot is growing in my stomach at the thought of my first assignment. The countess is vastly more intimidating than training exercises. I pull up a chair next to Marie-Josée. She’s sitting at one of the dressing tables, smearing cream over her jowly face.

“Don’t fret,
ma grande
. You learned from the best.” She smiles at me.

Her words aren’t comforting. Anxiety twists in my stomach as she reaches over and places a greasy hand on mine, her face serious for once. “Remember, Maude, you need to have a shell like stale baguette—hard as a rock.” She squeezes my hand. “Don’t let them in and you’ll be fine.”

I nod and force a smile. I want to believe her.

I
HAVE FOUND THAT IN
anticipation of any dreaded event, time accelerates. My morning lessons flew by, and now I’m sitting in the agency carriage, which is charging through the streets of Paris toward my meeting with the countess and her daughter. I feel like a bugle should be proclaiming our passage or sounding the alarm. The urgency throbbing through life here is dizzying. I wonder when all of this newness and change will stop. I want that feeling of stillness that hangs in the air before a thunderstorm, when it feels as if the earth has stopped turning. If I could just catch my breath, steady my footing. But there is no respite. The city streaks by my window, the people no more than a blur.

All too soon the carriage slows and pulls to a stop on boulevard Haussman. The driver helps me down and points to the shop where my meeting is to take place. A ladies’ hat boutique, it has a façade of wrought iron and a glass window with swirling gold lettering, which reads
Le Miroir des Modes
. Hats are
on display in the window, perched on gilded treelike branches. The carriage pulls away and I’m left alone on the street, trying to find the courage to enter the establishment.

My chest tightens as I open the door to the sound of the jingling shop bell. There is only one customer paying an account and no sign of the countess and her daughter. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and relief washes over me. I must be early.

I move farther into the store, taking it all in. I’ve never been in such an elegant place. The ceilings are higher than one would expect from the street, and the walls are finished in dark wood and cream moldings. Suspended from the ceiling is a glittering chandelier illuminating all shapes and colors of ladies’ hats. There are tall glass cabinets housing the more fragile creations, and slim wooden drawers left ajar display scarves arranged in rows.

I turn and catch a glimpse of my reflection in the wall of mirrors—it’s like looking at a stranger, seeing myself in an agency outfit of brown gingham. It felt much smarter than my own clothes in the dressing room, but here in this fancy store, it’s obvious how dull and plain I look: perfect for a repoussoir.

The customer leaves and the rosy shopgirl turns her attention to me. “
Bonjour
, mademoiselle. Let me know if you need assistance with sizes or styles.”

How odd it is to be treated like a customer. “I’m meeting some friends,” I tell her, and make my way to a chaise longue in front of the window display. I’m too intimidated to touch the fine hats, so I take a seat to wait for the clients. When I first arrived in Paris, it was my dream to work in a store like this, full of beautiful things, a far cry from the practical necessities of
country life. No lugging sacks of potatoes and boxes of apples or restocking bottles of hoof oil and spools of flypaper. Most of all, no Papa breathing down my neck.

I stare at the exquisite hats; they look like exotic birds. I want to sweep my hand across their plumes and feel the soft feathers tickle my skin. I imagine choosing a different one to wear every day. For a few moments I forget the reason I’m actually here. Then a nagging thought pokes at me—a section of the repoussoir rule book comes to mind. I was given a copy of the turgid volume on the first day of training.

       
II. ii.
Alieni Appetens
. It is forbidden to covet a client’s belongings, as this encourages unhealthy desires. Furthermore, any suspected theft of a client’s property will result in dismissal and legal action.

It’s as if the fashionable hats swivel away from me with disdain and the gloves laid out on the counter point accusing fingers. They know I don’t deserve to wear them; they know I don’t belong.

The tinkle of the shop bell turns my attention to the door. I’m surprised to see the countess’s friend, Madame Vary. She wears peacock feathers in her hat and prances like the bird itself. “Ah, there you are, Maude,” she says when she sees me.

I get up and we shake gloved hands.

“Bonjour
,

calls out the shopgirl.

Madame Vary ignores her and looks me up and down. “Only for the countess would I get involved in such a thing
She is such a precious friend.” Her warm words for the countess don’t match her contemptuous tone of voice. She removes the peacock on her head and throws it behind me on the chaise longue.

“You are my late husband’s second cousin’s daughter, if anyone asks.” And under her breath, “You look more like someone from
his
side of the family.”

I don’t know what she’s referring to, but I realize her last comment is a slight. How could she resent me when I’ve barely spoken a word to her? I watch as she walks toward the mirrored wall and checks her appearance. She doesn’t look like any widow I’ve ever seen—too pretty, too glamorous and too young. I don’t like her.

“As you know, my name is Madame Vary but you may call me
tante
for this charade,” she announces.

“I’m to pretend you are my aunt?” I ask.

Still gazing in the mirror, she says, “The countess will explain. Whatever you say to Isabelle,
don’t
mention that agency.” Then she wrenches herself from her reflection and walks toward the menagerie of hats on display. Her words leave me puzzled.

Before I can find out more, the shop door opens again and I turn to see the countess walk in with a girl my age. At first glance the daughter looks like a younger version of her mother, with the same rich, dark hair and pale skin, but when I study her more closely I see that her features are softer, less sculpted. She has the same dark eyes, though, the color of black cherry.

BOOK: Belle Epoque
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