Read an Excerpt
The night was still and moonlit, edged with ice. A thin frost lined the trees with white and tipped each furrow and hedgerow with new, cold beauty. In the distance the lights of a village twinkled fitfully and the smoke of burning applewood spiraled from low, country-cottage chimneys. The train wound its way through the night, shattering the rural stillness with a sudden shrill whistle that was echoed mockingly by some hunting barn owl.
Paul Bernard leaned back in the warmth and comfort of his compartment, sighing as they slowed down yet again. It had been a long journey. He’d missed the Paris express and had been faced with the choice of waiting three hours for the next, or taking the local, which crawled its way across the Normandy countryside toward the city. The bleak provincial station had offered few comforts, so he had taken the slow train and now he was regretting it. He checked his round gold pocket watch once again and smiled ruefully. A mere fifteen minutes had passed since he’d last checked. Peering out of the window he could see only himself reflected against the darkness—a tall, dark-haired man, in his early thirties, with nice, steady brown eyes. He smiled at his reflection, a prosperous man, a man of good taste. A tired man! His image disappeared from the window as they pulled into yet another dimly lit country station. Doors slammed, mail and milk were loaded, the guard chatted interminably with the stationmaster—would this journey never end?
In a hiss of steam the train pulled slowly from the platform. At last! The door crashed back suddenly and a battered bag flew past him into the compartment followed by a brimming straw basket and then the hurtling figure of a girl. The whirl of brown woolen skirts and tumbling blond hair picked herself up from the floor where she had landed and examined her knees carefully. A trickle of blood seeped through the twin holes in the thick woolen stockings that drooped around her thin ankles and she stared at them in dismay.
“Oh, I can’t,” she wailed despairingly, “I just can’t.”
“Can’t what?” asked Paul, smiling.
“I can’t go to Paris with holes in my stockings—what will people think?”
Paul bent to pick up her basket, recapturing the apples that were rolling around the compartment and stuffing them next to the country sausage and the hunk of bread. “I don’t think,” he said, handing her the basket politely, “that people will see your knees—normally, that is.”
She dropped her skirt hurriedly, smoothing it down, and settled primly on the edge of the seat opposite him. The color rose in her cheeks and she bit her lip, embarrassed.
Paul eyed her with amusement; the girls he knew never blushed. Picking up his newspaper he pretended to read, giving her time to compose herself. There was no doubt that she was in the wrong part of the train—she should, judging by her appearance, be in second class. She was leaning back against the cushions, eyes closed, and the flickering light in the carriage cast shadows beneath the long sloping cheekbones, emphasizing the taut smoothness of her peach-colored skin. He lowered his paper, taking advantage of her closed eyes to inspect her. She was very young—perhaps sixteen. A country girl, shrouded in layers of ill-fitting garments, but there was something about her that was really quite extraordinary. Or perhaps “exotic” was a better word to describe her. Such a mass of wonderful hair, tawny blond, spilling all over the place, and there was no hiding the length of those legs, even in the thick stockings and the dreadful country shoes. He shuddered fastidiously at the sight of her clumsy, mud-covered, thick-soled shoes and tried to visualize the same feet in silk stockings and elegant high-heeled slippers. Beneath the rough, ill-cut clothes, the mud, and the country manner there lurked a beauty. It didn’t jump out and grab you, but it could, given the right circumstances. He felt sure of it—and he was a connoisseur. Women were his business.
Why, he wondered, was she going to Paris? He smiled. Why else would a young, country girl go to Paris if not to do “something,” to become “somebody.” They all thought that in Paris anything must be possible. He stared out of the window, seeing her reflected there, and considered what to do about her.
I’ve done it, thought Léonie, her heart still thudding in her chest from a combination of fear, excitement, and the last-minute dash to the station. I’ve finally done it! Her fingers curled around the thin bundle of notes in her pocket. She didn’t need to count them, she knew exactly how much was there. It was all she possessed in the world, saved from her wages as a kitchen helper and waitress at the café in Masarde. Of course, she’d get a better job right away in Paris; after all, she was educated, wasn’t she? The old Curé had taught her himself for three whole years—of course, that was before her mother died. After that there’d been no time for books and learning, she had to earn her living. But it was the books that had done it. Without them she might never have known that anything existed beyond life in the small village where she was born—even Masarde had seemed like a grand town at first. She might have thought that everybody lived like that. Now she knew better; out there lay the real world, where everything waited for you—exciting people, wonderful parties, music, romance, laughter—she’d find it all, she just knew she would. That’s why she left.
When she was a little girl and her mother was still alive she had listened wide-eyed to the tales about her father, how he traveled the world with the circus—“from France to Russia,” he had claimed, though oddly enough her mother had met him when the little circus came to Masarde, the bareback rider, bronzed and virile in spangled white tights, muscles rippling under the lights. He was Egyptian, tawny-eyed and commanding, and Emilie had fallen head over heels for him. “You’re like him,” she’d told Léonie, “you have his eyes, his profile … ah, if only you’d known him.” But she never had, he’d gone back to the circus a week after she was born. Oh, he had promised Emilie he’d be back, promised they would be married, and her mother had kept her hopes until the day she died.
Léonie pressed her eyes more tightly shut. She didn’t want to think about that, either. She’d been to the frozen cemetery today, with its bleak little stone slab looking too small to blanket her pretty mother. Of course she told her what she was going to do, standing there with the icy wind whipping her hair into knots, stinging her eyes so that the tears she fought against froze on her cheeks. And she waited for some kind of answer, some sign of approval—but there was none. She was alone. She must make her own way in life. She would do it in Paris.
The train braked and slowed down, jolting her from her uneasy sleep. Her eyes flew open, catching those of the man sitting opposite, and their glances locked. “Oh.” She sat up and smoothed her hair, confused. “Is this Paris?”
“Not yet, we still have half an hour to go. But you’ve slept most of the way.” The strange beauty blushed again, gazing at him with those enormous eyes. There was something about the slant of the cheekbones and the curve of the jaw, the tiny ears. It was a flamboyant face, he decided; it didn’t hide under plump pink flesh, it flaunted its angles and hollows proudly. Yes, she could be a beauty, if she knew how.
There was a tap on the door and the ticket collector held out his hand impatiently while she fished her ticket from her pocket. “You should be in second class,” he said officiously. “You don’t belong in here and you’ve traveled all the way from Masarde in this compartment. You’ll have to pay extra.”
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I didn’t know.”
The collector thrust out his hand threateningly. “Don’t give me that story, you’d better pay up right now.”
Paul Bernard folded some notes in a discreet palm. “The young lady is with me.”
The conductor backed away with a sly smile. “Sorry, sir … I didn’t realize.…”
Paul leaned forward and handed the girl his card. “I hope you will allow me the privilege of helping you? I could see that it might have caused you a problem.”
Paul Bernard, she read to herself. Director, Music Hall Cabaret, place Royale, Paris. He was so smart, so sophisticated; he must think her just a silly country girl! “You’re very kind, Monsieur Bernard,” she said miserably, “I’ll pay you back, of course.”
“What takes you to Paris?” he asked, putting a match to his cigar and settling back in his seat.
“I had to get away.” The words came tumbling out with a suddenness that surprised her. “I couldn’t stand it any longer.…” She wished she’d never said that; what must he think of her now?
“And what sort of job will you get in Paris? Do you know anyone there?”
“No, monsieur.” Her eyes reflected her fear but she lifted her chin confidently. “But I’m sure I’ll get a job as a waitress. I have experience.”
“Here.” He wrote briskly on the back of his card. “This is the address of a decent boardinghouse. Tell Madame Artois I sent you, and if you are interested, I have a job for you.”
Léonie clutched the card hopefully. “A job, monsieur?”
“There’s always room for a girl like you in the Music Hall.”