Julien threw his brush down in disgust. In the four months since his admission to the Ecole de Beaux Arts, he’d painted scenes all over Paris. He painted the office workers at the Palais de Justice, jewelers in the Marais, courtesans in Montmartre, and picnics at the Pont de Neuilly. Nothing seemed to please his instructor, Monsieur Bernard.
Now Bernard was looking over his shoulder at his scene of the skivs on the Seine. “Don’t be petulant Mr. Bellerose. Pick up your brush.”
“You don’t like the color. I can see,” Julien said.
“The boat is pink,” Bernard scoffed.
“The captain is dreaming of sailing the South Seas.”
Bernard lifted his palms to his ears. “Don’t bring that modern heresy here.”
But it was 1906! Well into the new century. If Julien wanted to be misunderstood he’d have stayed at his parents’ patisserie. “May I go home early? I feel sick.”
Bernard waved him away. “Go. Try again tomorrow.”
The next morning the foot traffic in Montmartre was heavy and impeded his progress as he hurried to class. He stopped at the curb to let a carriage pass and felt a tug at his arm. It was Christian Geroux and his hands were trembling. Julien had been introduced to him at the Folies. Christian had consumed too much absinthe in the reverie and paraded about in a pilfered lady’s hat. He’d nearly been tossed out, and Julien had avoided him since. “You’re still sniffing ether aren’t you?” Julien asked.
“No, I’ve been off of it for two
weeks. I’m done with it. I want to paint again. I even have a little money in
my pocket. “
Julien regarded him with a skeptical eye. “What have you been doing?”
“A lottery scam, selling tickets with all the same numbers.”
Christian kicked a pebble off the curb. “I know. I’ll quit. I’ve got a job lined up at the Place du Terce, sweeping the stalls. Before long I can get a flat again.”
“Where are you sleeping?”
“Doorsteps mostly. There’s a room opening at the Bateau Lavoir. You’re painting now?”
“I got into the Beaux Arts, but it’s not easy. And this morning I’m late.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Christian said. “I know a good gambling hall. I’ve been lucky there.”
Julien shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Nothing ever happens. The rich guys go there with their mistresses. You can win enough to buy paint for a year.”
Gambling had been outlawed within sixty miles of Paris, but Julien needed money. Madame Liebengut had given him a cot at the Hotel Soulager on the Rue Amsterdam in exchange for maintenance repairs, but the school didn’t supply all the gouaches he needed. The only wealth he had after leaving behind his howling parents was a family heirloom, a ring King Louis XVI had given to a Bellerose ancestor in honor of his service as baker to the Royal Court. Julien kept the inscribed gold band tucked in his inside coat pocket.
“Let’s do it. But you must wash up first. You smell.” He led Christian back to the Soulager. Madame Liebengut turned from her place in front of a cast iron pot at the stove. “No school today?”
“Not for me. What’s in the pot?”
She wrapped her knobby rheumatic fingers around a tarnished spoon and stirred. “Rabbit stew. There’ll be plenty.”
Julien led Christian down the chilly staircase to the cellar. He pointed to the basin on the table under a small, oval mirror hung on the wall with dusty twine.
After Christian rinsed his face he spotted Julien’s coats and bowler hats in his armoire. “The Aviator Club is a nice place. Put those on. Have you got some for me?”
Julien produced his Sunday coat and hat. They exited onto the narrow Rue Amsterdam and headed toward the Clichy.
Someone had painted MATISSE WILL DRIVE YOU MAD on the wall of the rectory next door. Julien was poised to comment on the lack of respect given to the city’s most audacious painters when a soft voice interrupted.
“Excuse moi.” A pale woman struggled to catch up, her feet clacking against the cobblestones. “Bonjour Monsieurs. I’ve recently lost my husband.”
“Tell it to someone else,” Christian said.
She cast her eyes to ground and hurried away as if afraid of being struck. “Perhaps I could have given her a few centimes,” Julien said.
“She’s no widow,” Christian said. “She’s a prostitute. Giving solace to the grieving excites some people.”
Julien wondered if he’d ever understand the streets of Paris the way Christian did. At twenty-four he was feeling the burden of his virginity. It was respected in his parent’s religious circles, but in Montmartre he was an oddity.
They headed to the elegant second arrondisement and turned down the bustling Boulevard des Italiens. They passed the Opera Comique- arched windows reaching for the second heaven, and the Café de Paris where diners sipped on café cremes. The clock tower chimed twelve o’clock. Men and ladies alike dodged the heavy procession of carriages. Julien was taken with the street scene as it was at the noon hour and made a note to return to paint it.
The Sports Aviator Club was a spacious old building on the corner of the Rue Taitbout. Thick upholstered curtains blocked the windows, and the place was lit with kerosene lamps. Throngs of men and women in expensive clothes gathered at the velvet topped poker tables. Laughter emanated from the next room. Julien’s head pivoted from table to table.
“You don’t know what you’re doing do you?” Christian asked. “Roulette is the easiest. Put your money down on a square and wait for it to hit. I’m going to try my hand at stud.”
Julien walked to the roulette table and placed a franc down on twenty-one red. “Ten franc minimum,” the dealer said. A few of the sparkling demimondes waiting for the wheel to spin narrowed their eyes.
Julien dug for the last of his coins. “Pardon.” He put down his last ten francs.
The dealer spun the wheel. “Twenty-one red.” He shoved twenty francs at Julien. Within a half hour, beginners luck had turned his ten francs into a three hundred and fifty. Elated, he went to the bar. He glanced toward the back room. “What are they playing?”
“Baccarat. Chemin de fer,” the bartender said.
Julien drank a shot of absinthe and walked to the back room, feeling fuzzy. Several players were seated at an oval table, and six decks of cards sat shuffled together in an iron box. A pile of discarded cards were in the center of the table. The scent of smoke and adrenaline permeated the room. A few gamblers looked rumpled, as if they hadn’t slept, stubble sprouting from their chins. The designated banker dealt himself two cards, face down, and two others held in common by the other players.
Julien noticed immediately the striking figure of Christine Lina “La Belle” Otero, the most famous courtesan in Paris, seated next to the banker. Dark, curly hair surrounded her olive face, and her décolletage was scandalously low. Le Figaro breathlessly reported the escapades of the gypsy from Valga. She’d bedded men from every Royal house in Europe, and a dozen unfortunate suitors had killed themselves for the love of her. Julien clenched his hands and stared.
“Anyone going bank?” The dealer asked.
Otero tapped her slender fingers on the table. “I will.”
“You haven’t enough money to match the bank. You’ve lost all night Lina,” the dealer said. She looked to every man at the table, but they remained silent. The dealer lifted his eyes from the cards. “Haven’t you been spending time in Monaco with Albert again? There’s a telephone over there. Maybe he’ll secure some funds for you.”
“That pig wouldn’t give the sweat off his balls,” she said.
The gamblers snickered.
“I have to go bank or I’m washed out,” she continued. “You’ve already cleaned me out of my jewelry. What about this purse?” She threw a gold clutch on the table. “Take that.”
“That’s worthless,” the dealer said.
Otero pushed her chair back and stood. She turned around and lifted her dress, exposing her round naked bottom. “All right cochon. Here’s my ass. What’s it worth?”
The banker tugged at her dress and told her to sit back down. Julien scanned the table. Otero seemed to be there on her own.
“How much does she need?” Julien asked from under the hallway arch.
The dealer looked up. “Who are you?”
Julien reached for three hundred fifty francs and set them down. “An interested party.”
“She needs fifteen hundred francs,” the dealer said. The other players turned to stare.
“Oh,” Julien said. The heirloom ring in his coat pocket felt as if it were burning into his rib. He couldn’t possibly gamble with it. It would be a complete betrayal of his father.
Otero flashed her brown eyes and licked her lips. As if in a trance, he pulled the ring from his pocket. “A gold ring, a gift from King Louis to my family.” He set it down on the table. “For the lady.”
“You’ll get nothing out of Lina for that,” one of the men cracked. “You need ten thousand, at least.”
She eyed Julien and nodded. “Very well,” the dealer said. “Bank for the lady.” He turned over his cards, revealing a jack and a nine. The players stared. The dealer turned over the common cards-a queen and a four. “Bank wins. Sorry Lina.”
The other players groaned. They stood to gain from her win too. Otero stood once again and smiled. “I’m out. Bientot,” she said with a wave of her hand.
Julien knew he’d be feeling sick later over the loss of the ring, but presently she was heading toward him, her hips swaying. She placed her soft hand on his forearm and whispered into his ear. He felt her hot, moist breath. “I’m going home to nap. Come see me later, 27 Rue Fortuny.”
She waved to the doorman and was flung backward by a sudden rush of gendarmes brandishing night sticks and blowing their whistles. Two dozen gendarmes, brass buttons neatly fastened along their torsos, stormed in from the staircase. Glittering guests pushed over the tables and scrambled for the back entrance. Julien looked around for Christian. “Merde! A raid!” the banker yelled.
The roulette dealer was seized immediately as well as the players trapped behind an upturned poker table. A gendarme slapped a pair of handcuffs around Julien’s wrists. “Don’t move.”
Otero was led away, screaming: “What’s the use of living under a republic?”
The gendarme hauled Julien down the steps and tossed him into a waiting cart.
Julien awoke the next morning huddled in the corner of a cramped holding cell, disgusted with the taste of his mouth. The air in the dank cell smelled like urine, and the odor had saturated his clothes. He had not seen Christian and surmised he had somehow escaped. Otero had not been taken to the station with the others, and he wondered where she had gone.
A gendarme appeared in the narrow hallway and checked off names off a notepad. “Allard, Courtemanche, Langlois, Bellerose, Savageau.”
The relief Julien felt at being released from the cage was soon replaced with trepidation when they entered the courtroom. The Magistrate sat behind the bench wearing a black robe with a white ruffled ascot. The court officer stepped forward and called Julien’s name. The Magistrate lifted his file. “Julien Bellerose?”
“Do you understand you’ve been charged with Gaming within the city limits, a violation of le droit prive, an act which carries a maximum penalty of five thousand francs and eighty-nine days in jail?”
“How do you wish to plead?”
“Guilty Your Honor.”
“Very well. This is your first offense?”
“What is your occupation?”
“I was born into my father’s patisserie, but I’m a painter now.”
The Magistrate peered over his glasses. “Bellerose…not the Patisserie Bellerose?”
“They have the best bread in Paris. We could use some this morning couldn’t we Alfred,” the Magistrate said to the court officer. Alfred nodded.
“You’re a painter?” The magistrate asked. “My son wants to be a painter.” He looked over at Alfred. “Have any of your sons come home and told you he wants to paint?”
Alfred slid his eyes toward the Magistrate. “Alphonse.”
The magistrate chuckled. “Since this is your first offense,” the Magistrate continued, “I’m not imposing any jail time, but the fine is five hundred francs.”
“I don’t have it sir.”
“The Patisserie Bellerose must do quite well.”
“My father is no longer speaking to me.”
“Can you make payments?”
“I depend on others to eat sir,” Julien said.
“You managed to find enough to go gambling.”
“I pawned my grandfather’s ring in hopes of winning enough money for school.”
“I take it you lost it.”
The magistrate rested his hand on his long chin. “Let that be a lesson.”
“I’d very much like to use any extra money I can earn to buy it back. It was a gift to our family from King Louis XVI. For the bread sir.”
“Very well. You can work it off by sweeping the quays. It’ll take you a year, you understand that? “Stay out of the second arrondisement. Do you have any reason to be there?”
The Magistrate looked to Alfred. “No wonder his father is frustrated with him. We’re not getting any bread then are we.”
“Doesn’t look like it,” Alfred said.
The Magistrate slapped the file shut. “Very well. See the clerk on your way out.”
Poplar trees with soft, yellow autumn leaves lined the Rue Fortuny. The number 27 was a four-story building with a wide bay window on the second floor. Julien rang the bell. An African maid answered. Her long neck made her seem more regal than a housemaid.
“I’m here to see Lina,” he said, raising his voice as if he were asking a question. He hadn’t been expecting someone else to answer.
“One moment,” she said. After short delay, she returned. “This way.” He trailed her up the stairs and was shown into a room on the second floor. Otero appeared in the doorway. She wore a magenta silk robe, and her hair was jumbled. She looked as if she had just fallen out of bed. He hoped she was alone. He followed her into a large boudoir that was as sumptuous as she was-paneled in gilded oak and painted in a rose motif.
She pulled him inside and crinkled her nose. “You smell like piss. I imagine you spent the night in jail. The bath is over here,” she said leading him across the hall.
When he returned she was lying back on the bed, her robe spilled open. “What happened to you yesterday? I didn’t see you at the jail,” he asked.
She laughed. “I didn’t go to jail. I demanded to speak to the Prime Minister. They released me immediately.” He stared at her nakedness. The reddened skin beneath her breasts revealed the welts from her tight corsets and looked softer than he had imagined. She patted the bed, and he sat down next to her legs. “I’ve always been curious about painters. Why do you paint?” She asked.
“It’s the restraints. Life is full of them. When I bake bread, for example, and the oven is too hot, or I leave it in too long, it burns. And people. Always telling you what you can’t do. As if they know your soul and what it should have. There are no limits in painting.”
She placed her hand on his thigh. “This is your first time, isn’t it?”
The tips of his ears turned pink. “Yes.”
She beckoned him with her fingers. “What are you waiting for?”
He tilted his head and with sudden clarity said: “Tenderness.”
She sank back further into her feather pillows. Her charcoal eyes softened. He put on his filthy clothes and thanked her anyway. The housemaid met him at the door and unlocked it, looking back and forth between him and the stairway leading to her mistress. “Merci, Mademoiselle,” he said and stepped out.
He was broke and had lost his family’s ring. And he owed the Magistrate hours of labor sweeping the quays. He smiled to himself and headed to the Hotel Soulager for a crock of Madame Liebengut’s stew. Monsieur Bernard would be pleased. Julien had enough of deep muddy left in the tube for Lina’s eyes, and she could only be painted in the classic style, staring directly ahead, milky bosom beckoning.
Written by Shelley Schenk. Formerly published in the Copperfield Review and the Stonecoast Review under pen names. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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