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Taken from City of Lights: The Trials and Triumphs of Ilyse Charpentier, Chapter 1, A Chance Meeting
The balmy night air of August had served to fill the halls of La Perle de Paris to capacity once again. Not a seat was unoccupied, save one quiet table in a secluded, unlit corner of the club—a table that was always reserved. The chants had commenced long ago, a gradual build from a quiet murmur to a dull roar—“Coquette, Coquette, Vive la Coquette!” The raucous mob wanted their star, and in a moment, their hunger would be satisfied.
“Ten minutes, everyone!” a burly man bellowed, pushing his way through a mass of tulle and silk. He made his way down the backstage corridor until he came upon a solitary girl stealing a peek through the Tyrian purple-hued curtains.
“Ten minutes, Ilyse, get ready!” he ordered.
“Yes, Giverne,” she returned, smiling, and watched as he huffed down the hall. In a moment, her olive-brown eyes were once again fixed upon the throng, and she resumed rehearsing her lines. “City of Lights, Paree, do you see?” she sang, “I am the Diva on the stage. Hope—” But her soft chanting was suddenly interrupted by a wild flurry running down the corridor. In an instant, the commotion materialized into a profusion of blonde tendrils, which framed a pleasant round face and a pair of large, over-bright blue eyes.
“You’re late, Manon,” Ilyse said, trying to sound reproachful as she addressed the frazzled young woman.
The girl panted stertorously while she tried to straighten her costume and smooth her unruly curls. “Well, you know how it is. Wardrobe problems.”
“Yes,” Ilyse answered, a knowing smirk playing about the corners of her mouth. “I know exactly how it is … too much chocolat, no?”
Manon stopped her primping and looked up at her dearest friend. “I can’t help it if I have a sweet tooth!” she blurted out. “Now stop all this nonsense and fasten me up, will you?”
“Oh, very well,” Ilyse laughed, and abandoned her post to come to her disheveled friend’s rescue. “Now, hold it in.”
“I can’t,” Manon squeaked.
“Well, that’s because you’re not wearing your corset.”
“Never!” Manon retorted as if someone had just accused her of killing Marat. “I can’t wear that monstrous thing. It crushes me terribly. And what’s more, I can’t even breathe with it on.”
“No one ever said beauty was painless, darling,” Ilyse said, not having any luck in her struggle to hook the fasteners on Manon’s dress.
“Well, this beauty will go without!”
“Then it’s hopeless.” Ilyse sighed and released her hold on Manon’s costume. “You’ll have to play ‘Sourd et Muet’ tonight.”
“Ah, ma foi, such is my fate.”
For a time, silence reigned, each girl fighting not to be the first to laugh. Finally, as always, Ilyse was the first to break. “Oh, stop playing the martyr, you ridiculous fool!”
Manon made a lavish bow and struck a theatrical pose. “Don’t you think we should use that in the act?” she suggested, her large cerulean eyes widening expectantly.
“Oh, most definitely,” Ilyse acquiesced, still laughing. “If only we can get Giverne’s permission.”
“Forget it, then. Now, enough about Giverne. Is my Marquis out there?”
Before Ilyse had time to stop her, Manon had pulled back the curtain and poked her head into the hall. “Oh, I see him, the darling,” she cooed, spying her Marquis and flailing her bejeweled hand through the air in a gesture that was meant to be a wave but never amounted to more than a flash of rubies and emeralds.
“Don’t wave at him, you fool!” Ilyse whispered, and just as she said this, the glare of the candlelit hall vanished and Manon found herself staring at a suffocating wall of purple velvet and her friend’s less-than-pleased face. “Discretion, Manon,” Ilyse reminded, fighting to repress the smile that was threatening to destroy her facade of seriousness, “discretion. We are not to be seen or heard until our grand entrance. How do you expect to keep the Marquis interested?”
“I suppose that’s true,” Manon agreed. “But I couldn’t help taking just one peek.” Ilyse smiled at her impish friend and noticed that Manon’s irrepressible dimples had appeared—a certain sign of trouble. Whenever those two little indentations arose, Ilyse knew she had to do something to damp Manon’s mischief or there was no telling what social atrocity, however hysterical it might seem in hindsight—and there had been many—her friend might commit.
“If you’re so interested in peeking, my little sprite, then I have a wonderful surprise for you.”
“I love surprises!” Manon answered with glee.
“You’re going to adore this one. Now, if you really want to peek, you must do it like so.” Ilyse took hold of Manon’s hand and drew back a corner of the curtain so that only a sliver of light shone through. “Look who’s here.”
“Where, where?!” Manon squealed, her eyes roving over the crowded room.
“Why, there in the back. If it isn’t Gaspard and his troupe of provincial darlings! Oh, what fun it will be for you to dance with them. And look! That fat one in the front has seen you! Oh, wave, Manon, wave and show him your smile! Make that Marquis of yours insanely jealous!” Ilyse uttered a musical little fake-laugh and gave Manon a playful shove.
Manon let the curtain fall from her grasp as though it had singed her fingers and stared at Ilyse. “I find your humor lacking, Ilyse” Manon said sourly. “The last time I danced with Gaspard’s band of ruffians I couldn’t walk for a week and my feet will never forgive you for pushing me into that rustic’s arms!”
“Oh, come now, Manon,” Ilyse laughed, “It’s my job to liven things up a bit, too. I can’t let you and your dimples have all the fun.”
“All right, all right,” Manon said, rising to the challenge, “Well, I saw my Marquis, and I saw Gaspard and his bumpkins, God save my feet, but I didn’t see him.”
The instant Ilyse heard this word, all her previous mirth vanished and a terrible mix of anger and fear roiled within her. “Sergei?”
“No…No,” Manon stumbled. “Not him, never him. I meant your ‘one true love,’ of course.”
Ilyse’s brow relaxed and her lips curled into a faint smile as she remembered the little secret she and Manon shared.
“Oh, Manon, for the five years we have known one another, you’ve never missed an opportunity of showing me how hopelessly naïve I actually am. Well, who’s to say he’s not out there? What harm is there in hoping, however futile the hope may be? This nightly ritual is my escape. Don’t begrudge me this little reprieve.”
Manon, usually so effervescent, seemed crushed by her dearest friend’s accusations and blushed with shame. “Ilyse, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I never meant to make light of your feelings. Don’t hold it against me, ma soeur, don’t.”
Regardless of what had passed, Ilyse was incapable of holding a grudge against her confidant and only friend. “I know you meant no harm, Manon. Forgive me for acting so maudlin, it’s just that I feel as though I can’t keep up this charade much longer. If I didn’t have you to make me laugh and be my one light in this darkness, I don’t know how I could’ve survived all these years. He torments me by day with his ceaseless advances, and at night, even while I’m onstage, he finds a way to invade my peace. He’s always there, waiting for me to give in. But I swear I won’t. I don’t fear him as I did before. My fear has been overtaken by anger and turned to defiance. I hate him, Manon. It sickens my heart terribly.” Ilyse lifted her eyes and saw Manon standing motionless, lost in thought. Though she didn’t say a word, Ilyse knew exactly what was racing through Manon’s mind, for she had heard it all before—the painful memories of the past that bore uncanny similarities to the existence Ilyse had described. But in Manon’s circumstances, unspeakable terror had never allowed defiance to surface. She had been an impressionable young girl, dreaming of stardom, allowing him to lead her down a path from which there could be no return. He had robbed her of her fortune, although he was richer than all the kings of Europe combined, and destroyed everything she held dear. She refused his advances, and when she tried to escape, he committed a crime so drastic that she was forced to keep silent or die. Luc Dagenais had been her one true love, and the innocent Provencal had been murdered simply because he had given her his heart—an unpardonable offense in the eyes of her jealous patron. And so the years passed, and Manon fell out of favor, replaced by Gervaise, Collette, Brigitte, and finally Ilyse, who had become his most favorite of all. She had stayed for her dearest friend, and also because La Perle offered her the only respectable means of survival—a cabaret where she could earn a decent living without selling her soul to the devil himself. So was the fate of Manon Larue.
And Ilyse knew the vicious cycle would continue until she herself put a stop to it. But those were thoughts for another moment, for the public would not be kept waiting. The crowd was restless. Violent invectives were being hurled, if the mob were not satisfied, chaos would break loose. The star’s time had come.
Giverne blustered through the line of dancing girls, nearly stampeded Manon into oblivion, and snatched Ilyse by the arm. “You, now,” he boomed, “get onstage!!!” And before she had time to blink, he had already begun to raise the curtain.
“Bonne chance, Ilyse!” Manon squealed, but her voice was drowned by the crowd’s rabid cries.
La Petite Coquette had arrived!
©2005, 2013 Melika Dannese Lux and Books In My Belfry, LLC. Unauthorized use or reproduction of this excerpt without the author’s permission is strictly prohibited.