Gary Inbinder, The Devil in Montmartre
A Mystery in fin de siècle Paris
The Devil in Montmartre
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Length: 264 pp.
Paris - October 10, 1889
A Night at the Moulin Rouge
A chattering crowd bustled along the sidewalk on the Boulevard de Clichy; cabs and carriages rumbled up the damp street in a long procession at the foot of Montmartre hill. A steady, chilling, autumn rain had engulfed Paris for most of the day. Now in the evening hours the downpour had turned to drizzle pattering in the gutters and pooling on the pavement.
Pedestrians approaching their destination shook out the droplets and closed their umbrellas. They swarmed toward a beacon of modernity, a manmade radiance beaming from dozens of Edison’s electric bulbs glimmering like fireflies in the misty Paris night.
With its electrically illuminated rotating blades, The Red Mill advertised its presence in the Jardin de Paris. Brainchild of a pair of savvy entrepreneurs, Joseph Oller and his manager, Charles Zidler, the sensational new music hall had opened just in time to haul in thousands of well-heeled tourists flocking to Paris during the waning days of the great Universal Exposition. Among them were two elegant women riding in a closed cab. The driver pulled up to the front entrance. An attendant holding an umbrella opened the door and helped the women out of the carriage. The first was tall, fair-skinned and handsome. In her late thirties, she was fashionably dressed in an emerald green Doucet dress. She stepped down to the sidewalk and turned to assist her friend, a gaunt woman of the same age, an inch shorter than her companion and similarly attired in burgundy silk.
As the women entered the dance hall, the reverberating jabber of patrons and the shuffling of their shoes on wooden floors was drowned out by an orchestra playing a quadrille at breakneck speed. Occasionally, a high-stepping dancer would show all of her legs and more, crying, “Hoop-la,” to be followed by shouts and applause from an appreciative audience. The Moulin Rouge had quickly gained a reputation - it was a place to ogle the provocative dancers, get roaring drunk, and pick up girls. No one raised an eyebrow at the presence of two women without gentlemen escorts. Such things were frowned upon elsewhere, but after all, this was Montmartre, where the catch-phrase was à chacun son goût. Most everything was tolerated, as long as you paid up at the end of an evening.
The two women flowed with the crowd through a gallery, its walls lined with posters, paintings and photographs evocative of modern Paris, including Monsieur Eiffel’s controversial tower, then paused on a raised walkway near the long bar, its mirrors reflecting dozens of bottles and sparkling glasses. They found a little corner where they could observe the scene while avoiding collision with bustling waiters bearing refreshment to the multitude of thirsty patrons standing and seated round the mezzanine, main floor, and balcony.
Marcia Brownlow, the frail woman dressed in burgundy silk, took everything in with cool detachment and the keen eye of an artist. She was a noted painter, the founder of a school of West Coast American Impressionists, who had exhibited and won a Silver Medal at the Universal Exposition. Her sparkling green eyes darted round behind a mask of powder and rouge framed by auburn hair swept up in a pompadour. The illness that ate at her lungs had given her a macabre beauty; on first sight she gave the impression of a pretty corpse on display in its silk-lined coffin.
The hall was vast, the ceiling high and vaulted, like a temple devoted to the gods and goddesses of amusement and pleasure. Marcia drank in the colors, the shapes, and inhaled the smells; the greenish-golden glow of hundreds of electric bulbs and gas jets, filtered through smoky haze from countless cigarettes and cigars. Red, white and blue bunting draped the balconies; dancers kicked and whirled, displaying flashes of white, lace-trimmed linen and black stockings. The odor was a potpourri of tobacco, perfume, rain-dampened clothing, and sweat. She stored each fleeting sense impression, like photographs and sachets in a dresser drawer, wondering: Can I paint it? Will I have time, or will the memory fade and die with me?
Betsy Endicott, heiress to a railroad fortune, patroness of the arts and Marcia’s companion for more than a decade, contemplated her friend with worried eyes: How long can she last in this place? Can I get her back to California before Paris kills her?
A couple of toffs in evening dress interrupted: “Will you ladies join us for a drink?”
Marcia and Betsy had inadvertently paused in a prime area for pick-ups. Betsy blushed and squeezed Marcia’s hand protectively. “I’m sorry,” she replied with a hint of annoyance, “we’re meeting friends.” She then pulled Marcia away into the stream of humanity flowing in the direction of the dance floor.
Gazing after the elegantly dressed pair as they merged with and vanished among the throng, one of the toffs nudged his companion in the ribs and remarked, “I guess we’re not their type.” His companion grinned and nodded knowingly and the two continued their hunt, setting their sights on more promising quarry.
The two women jostled their way to the end of the bar. Marcia stopped abruptly near a narrow stairway leading down to the dance floor and drew her friend’s attention to a man seated at a round table set on the main floor’s perimeter. “That’s the artist who painted the portrait we admired in Joyant’s gallery.”
Betsy observed a well-dressed young man with a thick black beard and dark, intense eyes peering through a pince-nez. Despite his impeccably tailored clothes, there was something simian about his physiognomy. She also noticed a short cane, suitable for a dwarf, hanging from the back of his chair. The artist concentrated on the dancers while drawing in a sketch-book, his hand moving swiftly and efficiently in concert with his darting eyes. He occasionally put down his charcoal stick, took a draft of cognac, and then continued sketching furiously where he had left off.
Marcia smiled and tugged at her companion’s hand. “Come on, Betsy, I’ll introduce you.”
Betsy turned to Marcia with a quizzical squint. “You’ve made that gentleman’s acquaintance, dear?”
“Oh yes, in the American Gallery at the Fair. You weren’t there that day, I’m afraid. At any rate, he liked my paintings. Come on, you’ll find him clever, and we can talk to him about that portrait.”
Marcia yanked Betsy onward, and it was as though the consumptive had been wonderfully reinvigorated by the sight of her fellow painter. They arrived presently at his table, blocking the artist’s line of sight.
The man put down his charcoal and looked up with an irritated scowl, an expletive forming on his lips. However, upon seeing Marcia Brownlow, his frown turned to a shrewd smile; the expletive remained unuttered. Placing his powerful, hairy hands on the table, he rose a few inches, made a slight bow and greeted the intruders in impeccably accented, aristocratic English. “My dear Miss Brownlow, what a pleasant surprise. To what do I owe this honor?”
There might have been a hint of sarcasm or condescension in his overly-formal greeting, but Marcia chose to shrug it off. “My friend and I saw some of your work at Monsieur Joyant’s gallery. We were intrigued by one of your portraits.” Marcia caught herself; she had failed to introduce Betsy. “Pardon me, Monsieur, I was so pleased to see you I forgot to introduce my friend. Miss Betsy Endicott, may I present Monsieur de Toulouse-Lautrec, a young artist of considerable promise.”
Betsy smiled diffidently and extended her hand. Toulouse-Lautrec grabbed the digits, gave them a friendly American shake, and let go. Then he turned to a passing waiter, snapped his fingers and shouted, “César, two chairs, another bottle, and glasses for the ladies, please.” The waiter rushed off to fill the order and the artist grinned at Marcia and Betsy. “You’ll do me the honor of being my guests, won’t you?”
Betsy hesitated, but Marcia was quick to reply. “Yes, of course we will.”
While waiting for the chairs Marcia realized that they were blocking Lautrec’s view. “Pardon us, Monsieur,” she said, pulling Betsy back toward a railing separating the low mezzanine from the main floor.
Lautrec smiled appreciatively and continued sketching until the waiter brought the chairs and a fresh bottle of cognac. Once they were seated, the attentive waiter filled their glasses before scurrying off to see to his other thirsty customers. Lautrec produced a gold monogrammed cigarette case and offered the women a smoke. Betsy declined but Marcia took a cigarette, leaning over the table as Lautrec struck a match and gave her a light. Betsy frowned, but remained silent. She could deny her friend nothing, and Marcia seemed so far gone in her illness that insisting upon abstinence would have been cruel, not to mention futile.
The Quadrille ended to raucous applause and shouts of “Bravo!” The floor cleared and the orchestra took a break. Lautrec and Marcia maintained a stream of art-related conversation while Betsy mostly listened and observed. At one point, the subject changed to automobiles.
“We saw the Daimler exhibit at the fair, and I sketched the motor car,” said Marcia with an enthusiastic gleam in her eye. “The automobile powered by an internal combustion engine has great potential. Of course, it’s in its infancy, like the railroad locomotive seventy years ago.” She turned to Betsy and sighed wistfully. “I’d so love to ride in an automobile before I die.”
Betsy looked down, touched her friend’s hand and pursed her lips. She tried to speak, but could only choke back a sob.
Lautrec observed the women closely and guessed at the intimacy of their relationship. He was touched, for an instant, but wished to change the subject to his paintings. Joyant had told him Marcia’s companion was a wealthy American collector of new art; Lautrec figured that with a damp, cold winter coming on and Marcia’s consumption, the women would not remain too long in Paris.
“My cousin Dr. Tapié admires the automobile. I should not be surprised if some day he turns up driving down the Champs Elysee in one of those things, ha, ha.” He drained his glass before addressing Marcia on a subject closer to his heart. “By the way, I recall you mentioning one of my paintings at Joyant’s gallery. Could you please tell me to which one you were referring?”
“Of course, Monsieur, it was the portrait of a very beautiful young woman. She was blonde with blue eyes and seemed to gaze at the viewer with the most wistful smile. Please excuse me for making an observation that might seem impertinent; for want of another word, the portrait’s prettiness and charm distinguishes it from your other work.” Marcia smiled enigmatically at Lautrec while awaiting his reply.
Lautrec stared back at Marcia with a bewildered look, as though he did not know how to respond. His English was very good, but perhaps due to a subtle nuance of expression he had misunderstood her? At any rate, he sensed that this prize-winning American woman artist had insulted him. But he regarded this discussion as the beginning of a negotiation, and he was not going to strangle the newborn deal in its cradle with speculations as to her meaning regarding this particular painting’s “prettiness.” In short, if Marcia’s rich patroness wanted to buy his pretty picture to please her dying lover he would be more than happy to oblige, provided of course that the price was right.
“Ah, Miss Brownlow, you have seen my portrait of Virginie Ménard. She is a lovely girl, is she not?”
“Indeed she is, Monsieur. I’ve sketched her myself at the Atelier Cormon.”
Marcia’s revelation surprised her companions, Betsy more so than Lautrec. “Marcia,” she said with a hint of exasperation, “you never said anything to me about this young woman.”
“Betsy dear, must I tell you everything? At any rate, I did tell you that Cormon invited me to his Atelier. And it just so happened that the young woman we admired in Monsieur’s painting was modeling there that day.”
“Did we admire the young woman? As I recall, it was the painting that intrigued us, not the model.”
Lautrec found this incipient lover’s quarrel amusing and somewhat arousing as well. So much so that he was tempted to provoke it further. Nevertheless, he prudently tried to steer the conversation back to business. “Mademoiselle Ménard is much sought after-as a model, that is. And she dances divinely. You shall see her tonight, in the Can-Can.”
“I can’t wait,” Betsy muttered peevishly.
Marcia glanced at her friend. “Cheer up, darling. What you need is a drink.” Then to Lautrec: “Let’s have another bottle, Monsieur. This round’s on us.”
Copyright © 2014 by Gary Inbinder