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Authors: Barbara Pope

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The Missing Italian Girl (6 page)

BOOK: The Missing Italian Girl
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“Excuse me?” a man beside her said.

Maura gasped; she hadn’t meant for anyone to hear. “Nothing.” She shook her head and was about to look away again, until she realized that she did not know exactly where to get off the bus. “Do you know the stop for the Bon Marché?” she asked.

“Are you going shopping there?”

She lifted her hand to straighten her glove. The little blue satin sack hung prettily from her wrist. “Yes,” she said. She knew that the Bon Marché was even grander than La Samaritaine. It was the kind of place in which an Albertine might well spend a few happy hours.

He smiled through tobacco-colored teeth. He was well dressed, but old, at least forty. She could see glimmers of flinty gray in his mustache and beard, and smell the lingering odor of his cigarettes. She needed to be careful. She was relieved when he told her that he’d love to take her there himself, but he had business to conduct across the river. “However,” he said, “it’s only two more stops after this. You’ll see. You can’t miss it.” Then, the stranger stood up to get off the bus. As he left, he tipped his bowler and chuckled. Was he laughing because he knew that she was not the type of woman who could afford the Bon Marché? Maura straightened herself up and turned back to the window. Albertine would show them all.

The man was right. You couldn’t miss the grandest emporium of them all. Especially since almost every other woman on the omnibus got off at the stop across from it. Maura hopped off last, into an atmosphere abuzz with the excited voices of shoppers, the shouts of drivers and haulers, and the snorting of horses. She stood gaping, while others pushed past her to cross a broad intersection made perilous by moving carriages, omnibuses, bicycle riders, and boys pushing delivery carts filled with goods. Although she had never seen a palace, Maura was sure that no duke or king or czar could have built anything more magnificent than a store that took up an entire city block. The windows shone like jewels. Each corner was crowned by a dome that reminded her of the Russian church in one of Vera’s watercolors. Maura took a deep breath. To work in such a place, with so many people, so many things! No mother, no garlic-breathing lecherous boss, no sister to tell her what to do. How wonderful it would be. Before attempting the hazardous crossing that would lead to the fulfillment of her dreams, Maura squinted and watched to see how the other women got into this marvel. Then she saw it, the most magnificent crown of all over the grand entrance in the middle of one side of the building. Biting down on her lip, and glancing from side to side, she ventured forward.

Entering the store, she reminded herself to keep her spine erect and her chin ever-so-slightly in the air. Still, she could not keep from gasping. Was this a palace? Or was it a cathedral in the throes of some grand ceremony? Four floors above her, skylights streamed the noonday sun along the central aisle. On either side, a circular staircase led up to galleries lining the second, third and fourth floors. Murmurs and sighs of delight flowed from top to bottom, like a chorus of cherubim singing and thrumming their wings. She processed slowly, like a bride. Not a bride saying her vows at the local wineshop, as so many of her neighbors had done, but a princess-bride joining her handsome groom in front of a bishop.
Albertine,
she thought,
I am Albertine Hélène LeChevalier
.

Midway through the aisle she decided to examine the merchandise and lightly ran a finger over a man’s striped silk cravat.

“May I help you?” said a suave masculine voice.

She paused for one tasteful second before replying, “I am looking for the ladies’ things.”

“Lingerie, dresses, scarves, linens, what—?”

“Lingerie,” she interjected quickly and bowed her head as if she were the kind of girl who blushed at the very thought of referring to her under and night wear.

“Second floor, in the gallery to the left. A lady will help you when you get there.”

The speaker was clean-shaven and younger than the man on the bus. And rather handsome, all tucked into his dark blue suit. She peered around him. She hadn’t noticed before that all the clerks on the main floor seemed to be men in suits just like his. But she didn’t let this bother her. He had said “a lady” would help her upstairs. “Thank you.”

“You’ve not been to our store before? Do you know about the outdoor concerts?”

She pressed her lips together and shook her head. “No. My first time.”

“A moment.” He went behind the counter and handed her a brochure.

“Every Sunday during the summer. Right in front of the grand entrance.”

A concert every week!
The Bon Marché was even more magnificent than she could have imagined.

“Thank you,” she said again, as she delicately relieved him of the program, making sure not to touch the man’s hand with her glove. Then with a solemn nod and a slight, gracious smile, she lifted the side of her skirt and sauntered toward the staircase.

By the time she got to the top, she was out of breath. Nervousness. She stood by the rail to calm herself and then launched into an enormous room hung with satin nightgowns arrayed in a myriad of the palest, most beautiful colors. Whoever bought them, she thought, does not live where it is too hot or too cold. Everything in their life must be just right. Someday I will have a room like that.

“May I help you?”

There was a coldness in the voice that put Maura on guard.

“I am wondering where I can inquire about a position.”
Inquire, position
, that sounded just right, just so “Albertine” to Maura’s ears. On the other hand, the woman in front of her didn’t appear to be an “Albertine” at all. She was dressed in a broadcloth navy blue shirtwaist dress that made her look like a schoolmarm.

“Really.” The witch had the nerve to arch her eyebrows.

“Really,” Maura responded.

“Very well, come with me.” The haughty clerk’s brisk walk created a breeze which made some of the gowns ebb and flow as she moved. Maura’s heart began to pound.
Albertine
, she whispered to herself.

At the back of the huge, high-ceilinged room, a much older woman, in the same dress, sat at a desk, writing. “Madame Vergennes, this young woman wants to inquire about a place in our department.”

Without even looking up, this Mme Vergennes murmured, “Did you tell her you need to have a great deal of selling experience and be very good at numbers to work at the Bon Marché?”

“I know a great deal about shirtwaists,” Maura blurted out before she realized that this was not a very “Albertine” thing to say. She should have talked about her schooling, made it sound much better than it was.

Her outburst caught the woman’s attention. She lifted her head and peered through her pince-nez. “Shirtwaists?”

Maura stayed utterly still as the woman surveyed her from head to toe. “Yes, I sold them in a nice shop on the Boulevard Rochechouart.” Maura squeezed her eyes shut and cringed. Albertine would not have been merely a clerk, nor would she have worked near Maura’s old neighborhood on one of the outer boulevards. She would have gone to a high school, a good one. But it was done, said. Maura forced herself to meet the woman’s eyes.

“Hmmm. The Boulevard Rochechouart. Is that near where you live?”

“Yes.” Maura could feel the sweat sprouting under her arms. She hoped it was not staining Vera’s blouse.

“I see.” Mme Vergennes glanced beyond Maura’s shoulder. “Mademoiselle Henri, you may go back to your post.”

Maura heard the feet and skirt shuffle behind her.

“Your name?”

Maura noted that the woman’s eyes were the same color as Vera’s blouse, only their iciness pierced through you rather than covered you. She felt exposed and, even in the heat, chilled. If this woman was a schoolmarm, she was the sternest one ever, worse than the nuns that had frequently struck Maura’s knuckles with a ruler.

“Albertine Hélène LeChevalier,” Maura whispered.

“Age?”

“Twenty.” Maura could not keep her chest from heaving.

“May I see your identity card?” The woman held out her hand, which looked hardened and strong.

Maura reached in her sack and handed over the false identity card. The woman’s silence was worse than her questions. She held the card in her two hands glancing between it and Maura’s face for what seemed an eternity, as if she were deciding what to do next, as if she were going to call the police or find someone to throw Maura out of the store. Finally, Mme Vergennes handed back the card.

“Come with me.”

Going down the aisle toward the door was torture. The witchy Mademoiselle Henri and another clerk watched, cupping their hands over their faces as they whispered and giggled. Maura’s face was burning, but she held her head high, never letting on that she noticed their scorn.

Mme Vergennes led Maura around the second floor gallery into another magnificent room. But this one was not filled with merchandise. Rather it had a few tables and benches, and walls covered with paintings above shelves and shelves of leather-bound books.

“Sit here.” Mme Vergennes took a place on a bench.

Having no other choice, Maura followed her command.

“Where did you get that card?” the woman demanded. She had taken her glasses from her nose, leaving them to hang by a black cord over her chest.

It did not matter that Maura’s mind was a jumble, for she dare not say anything. She almost stopped breathing.

“You are not Albertine LeChevalier, are you?”

Although her mouth fell open, Maura still could not make a sound.

Mme Vergennes sighed and rubbed the reddened spots left by the pince-nez on the bridge of her nose. When she looked at Maura again, her eyes seemed sad rather than angry. “This is dangerous, you know. The people who do this sort of thing. I hope you are not connected with them, criminals, anarchists.”

Maura squeezed her hands together and bowed her head. “No,” she mumbled, “no,” biting down hard on her lip.

“Good. You are young. You are an innocent girl. You’ve never committed a crime, have you?”

The morning’s meager breakfast roiled in Maura’s stomach. Was watching a man die, carrying his body through the streets, and throwing it into a basin a crime? Somehow Maura was sure it must be a very serious one. Fortunately, she got out another denial.

“You don’t steal. You do not sell your body.”

“No, no, no.” This was easier because it was true.

“Then, my child,” the woman placed a hand gently over Maura’s, “you must beware. There are so many people out there who will want to take advantage of you. You need to find honest work. And maybe someday you can come here and join our family. We are a family of sorts, you know, and I am in charge of selecting and looking after our girls.” She paused. “You should come back only after you’ve proven your worth and are willing to tell the truth about who you are.”

When Maura did not answer, the woman withdrew her hand. “Do you see all of this?” she asked. “It is our reading room. For our clients
and
for our employees. There are so many benefits here, a lunch room, a pension, but you must earn it, and it is hard work. Yet, I believe, it is the best such job in all of France.”

The worst part of being humiliated was that the woman was being kind. Maura could not hold back the tears. “Go back to your neighborhood,” Mme Vergennes told her. “Try to get a position in a shop. Be diligent and hardworking. Learn how to calculate quickly and accurately. And, then, we shall see, in a few years.” She paused before standing up over the chastened Maura. “I must get back.”

Not until she was sure that Mme Vergennes had left the library did Maura dare look up. She couldn’t bear the thought that she had so easily been caught in a lie, that she’d let her hopes be dashed without a struggle. She wanted to scream. To tear up the stupid identity card. To rend Vera’s silky blouse. She swiped her cheeks and nose with her glove and sleeve, and sniffled until she was sure that she had stopped driveling. As the breaths came into her body, her chest expanded, filling her with angry energy. She fled to the staircase and, with her hand on the rail, raced down to the first floor.
What did these people know about being poor? What did oh-so-proper Mme Vergennes know about crime, real crime? She had never lifted and pulled a bleeding, dead body. She could not possibly know what real trouble felt like
. Maura did, and felt the weight of it now more than ever. Lowering her eyes to avoid any encounter with the courtly salesman, she hurried to the grand entrance. Once outside, she crossed her arms over her chest and kept her eyes to the sidewalk as she got as far away from the Bon Marché as she could. She had to think. She had to find a way out.

After about fifteen minutes of ignoring strangers and skirting past carriages, she found herself at a gate of the Luxembourg Gardens, the park the Russian girls had described when they talked about their foray to the Bon Marché. Shrugging her shoulders, Maura decided to go in. Perhaps she’d find a bench, shade, some consolation for her terrible day. She was hungry too, and as soon as she saw a woman selling fried potatoes she knew she had to have them. Her gloved fingers ran over the money in the thin silk sack. Barbereau’s money. Maura resisted the shiver that the thought of his rigid, dead body always sent through her. She set her chin resolutely forward. The money was hers now. She took off her gloves and shoved them into the little sack, digging out a few coins. She bought a cone of
frites
and gobbled them up as she stood by the stand, as if eating them fast would chase away her fears. When she realized that she’d hardly tasted her rare treat, she bought another cone and munched on them more slowly as she strolled, trying to look as if she fit in.

The labyrinth of stony paths led her past men in top hats, nannies pushing strollers, and lovers communing on benches. Had she been in a better frame of mind, she might have tried to guess whether these couples were having a tryst, or even sat down by them just to be annoying. But what was the joy in that? In any of this?

The gardens of brilliantly colored flowers didn’t give Maura much pleasure either, at least not until she remembered Lidia’s complaint, that every French garden looked like a regiment of soldiers on parade. That image brought a smile to Maura’s lips, and so did the memory of Lidia’s vehemence. Flowers, she had insisted, should be free, allowed to grow wild, not made to stand at attention in carefully pruned and groomed rows.

BOOK: The Missing Italian Girl
8.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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