Mata Hari's Last Dance - Michelle Moran

Part 1

Creation

Chapter 1

Tell Me Where You Learned to Dance

1904

We don’t take a horse-drawn cab to his office. Edouard Clunet is a lawyer—he owns a car. He opens the door for me and I find a wilted rose on the black leather seat. I hold it up. “Recent lover?”

He takes the rose and tosses it out the window. I can imagine him acting as casual with the women he makes love to. “You’re young. Nineteen? Twenty?”

“Twenty-five.”

If he’s surprised by this he doesn’t show it. “Still, you haven’t seen much of the world.” He starts the car and we drive down the Boulevard de Clichy, past empty shops and seedy bars. Men stand in tight clusters along the sidewalks, smoking, talking, whistling at women.

“I was born in India,” I say. I’m about to elaborate when we jerk to a halt, narrowly avoiding an outraged pedestrian.

“Listen,” he says when we are driving again. “I don’t care how many men you sleep with or who you charm by describing fanciful holidays in Egypt, sipping champagne on a felucca in the Nile. If you can mesmerize a man by claiming you took high tea with Edward VII during the durbar to celebrate his succession to Emperor of India, fantastic. The bigger and more believable your lies, the better. That being said—with me, cut the act.”

We are driving downhill toward the nicer part of town, an area much more respectable than where he found me. He stops the car for another pedestrian and I look out the window, imagining myself in one of the boutiques. I’d wear black silk gloves and pearls around my neck at least three strands deep. I’d wear a hat with feathers.

“When I introduce you to my client, I’m responsible for how you behave. Understand?”

“No.”

“Let me explain it clearly. I am going to present you to my client, M’greet.”

The car rolls past La Madeline. A month earlier I auditioned for them. I wore a wine-colored sarong while all the other hopefuls dressed in moth-eaten furs. I told the men who owned the theater that I had traveled from India to share the dance of my people with the citizens of Paris. I danced without music, imagining the sounds of a gamelan, the strum of a sitar and surmandal. I was exotic. Too exotic.

“Thank you. We’ll be in touch,” they said and rejected me.

“He is a very rich client and a very respected man. I will tell him that you are Indian, that you were born in India, and you are going to behave as if everything I say is true. I can make you famous. But you must follow my advice and never lie to me. Ever.”

After La Madeline’s rejection I went to L’Ete. A shack where the poor entertain the poor, everyone’s last stop before trying something desperate. At L’Ete the girls stank of alcohol and poverty. It was my last audition, and where I met Clunet. He watched me perform with his fingertips pressed over his lips. As I danced, I thought he looked out of place in such a rundown playhouse. His suit was immaculate. I tried to guess his age. Thirty-three, thirty-five? I focused on him rather than on the men who were judging me from behind a wooden table as I spread my arms like the mother goddess and moved my hips to the silent gamelan. But I was “too dark and too slow” for L’Ete. “Too,” one of the men at the table said, waving his hand to search for the right word, picking fruit from trees, “Eastern.” They wanted blonde girls; they didn’t want me.

Clunet sought