Excerpt Saturday: A Cultured Gentleman

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Europe
1932

After Brussels, Elie visited nearly every town Helen played, frequently heralding his arrival with a spray of flowers waiting for her at each hotel.
“Please, please invite your friends to join us on our outing,” Elie cheerfully encouraged Helen.
In Paris, where Voila was performing, Elie motored a carload of Beauties to the countryside, stopping at the Bourbon Palace of Versailles. The American girls strolled amid the recovering gardens, the graceful flowing fountains, and grand buildings that had been severely neglected during the Great War, not so long before.
“Elie, this place is magical!” Helen exclaimed. “Have you been here before?”
“Only once,” the young man replied. “We—my mother, two sisters and I, traveled to Paris after the funeral of my father in northwest France. Perhaps I will take you up there another time.”
They toured the ornate grand salons including Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, the queen’s palace. Helen lost herself, dazzled with the elaborate ivory and gold friezes along the walls and ceilings, and the gold-framed paintings hung in arched cornices.
Later, standing before a vast mirror in the Hall of Mirrors, the couple caught their reflection together—Elie smiling tenderly while Helen felt an inexplicable pang of regret.
In Strasbourg, on another day trip, the pair enjoyed a 12:00 tour of the town’s beautiful Gothic cathedral.
“Oh!” Helen exclaimed, captivated by the cathedral’s ornate astronomical clock inside the transept.
Elie whispered, “Wait my dear, it gets better.”
After only a few moments, small figurines emerged from above the blue and gold clock, within a square opening of the sandstone wall. The carvings represented the phases of life, holy saints, and culminated with statuettes of Jesus and his twelve apostles. While absorbed in the intricacy of the synchronized whirring, Helen felt a touch on her hand, as Elie took her arm. Together, the two silently contemplated this majestic tribute to the Almighty’s dominion over time.
On another stop Elie caught up with Helen by driving to Geneva. In the morning, before rehearsals, the Belgian escorted the dancer on a visit to the League of Nations.
“How did you manage passes, Elie? Charlotte and Grace were told they needed a sponsor to attend,” Helen whispered in the vast paneled halls, watching Elie retrieve the official cards from his pocket.
“I have a business contact here in the city who agreed to endorse us,” Elie quietly responded.
Finding their seats in the public gallery, Helen listened as one prominent gentleman after another eloquently spoke of a peaceful world. Moved by the solemn atmosphere in the chamber, the dignified proceedings, and the sincerity of all the delegates’ remarks, she whispered to her new friend, “These men sound determined to spare the world from another war.”
“My dearest girl, I truly hope they are successful,” Elie answered emotionally, gazing at the proceedings with brimming eyes.

*

Elie was in London on business, unable to attend Helen’s ballet performance in Erba, a town in northern Italy which was a holdover obligation from the Gambarelli contract. Mistinguett permitted the rest of the cast time off while the girls rehearsed for the somber ballet—Goethe’s Faust. This dark saga, a morality tale of the man who sold his soul to the devil for worldly power, puzzled the ballerinas.
“Ballet is a serious dance form, it’s true,” complained Una, “but this performance is so grim, I’ll bet there’s no belly laughs, or knee slappers in the aisles tonight.”
A murmur of assent echoed in the dressing room.

*

The cast party after the program proved to be anything but grim or serious. Accompanied by two Italian boys, Eddie and Nikko—young men the dancers had met earlier—the crowd left the theater in a cacophony of chatter and laughter.
Parading to a nearby café, the American girls swarmed around small tables on the stone terrace. Under a garland of dim light bulbs strung around the courtyard, clouds of rising blue cigarette smoke, laughter, and chinking glasses animated the softly lit oasis, the celebration flowing easily against the night.
“Have you tasted cognac, Miss Helene?” Nikko asked, in an innocent tone.
“No, Nikko. It’s bourbon for this girl.”
“My dear, cognac is the nectar of the heavens. You must try a sip.”
Helen reluctantly stared at the cognac the Italian pushed in front of her. She cautiously raised the snifter, appraised the aroma warily, and sipped. Choking a bit, she concluded, “This isn’t bad.”
Nikko, grinning, ordered another. The more cognac she consumed, the more earnestly the dancer explained how she was properly instructed to perform Ballet spotters back in New York.
Eddie sat, enchanted, listening to the pretty American girl. He suddenly asked, “Lovely Helene, would you permit me the privilege of observing your spotters?”
Nikko winked at his friend, and then added, “I have never seen a New York spotter.”
“Go on, Helen, show us how your Mr. Evans says it should be done,” egged on Grace, weaving unsteadily around the table to watch.
“New York spotters!” demanded several voices. Looking blearily around at her audience, Helen wobbled to her feet. The little crowd applauded.
“Hop up on the table, Helen. We can’t see your footwork from here,” shouted Carmen. Helen warily looked at the tabletop. She carefully placed her knee onto the edge, testing its strength, and satisfied it wouldn’t tip or collapse, awkwardly clambered up.
She clumsily rose to her toes. Lightheaded from the alcohol, the dancer tried to focus on a fixed spot, but just couldn’t pinpoint one. One rotation she turned, then another, and Helen began to gather speed. Inevitably, and all too soon, the girl tottered, losing her footing and equilibrium. Luckily for her, spectators surrounded the table and as she listed at a dangerous angle, the boys caught her before she hit the unforgiving flagstones.
Sick and sore the next morning, the no-longer-graceful ballerina retching in the bathroom, gasped, “Nectar for the gods? Tasted more like lighter fluid. I—hate—everyone.”

*

Elie caught up with the Mistinguett Company when Helen and her friends returned to Paris. Pleased to be reunited with the lovely American girl, he offered the group another afternoon tour in his Packard.
“I have my automobile, and you can decide our destination,” he invited.
“We’ve been to The Louvre.” Carmen mentioned.
“I loved the Mona Lisa, remember, Helen?” added Charlotte.
“The Winged Victory was wonderful, too. Plus we have visited the Arch de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower,” Helen finished. “I think that today it’s your choice, Elie.”
The Belgian looked the girls over, gazing mostly at Helen. “I believe I have an idea. Climb in. We will motor north.”
The party journeyed under a cloudless blue sky to the northeast. Eventually, after passing through some small villages, Elie veered onto a narrow road, parking his Packard in a field.
“This is the battle area known as the Marne,” he announced soberly.
The girls quietly climbed out of his vehicle almost reverently at the familiar name of the legendary site. The young man guided the group over the ribbons of scarred landscape left by the many futile attacks that made up the Marne Campaign in the Great War.
“Was your father killed here, Elie?” Helen whispered.
“No, Helen, he died later, further northwest near the Somme River. That is where he is buried.”
It wasn’t a topic she gushed over in her letters to New York. That afternoon excursion made the wreckage of war too real for a dancer from faraway America.

*

Back in Paris Helen was astonished to find a letter postmarked from Los Angeles, California. Grant’s letter seemed from another world, another lifetime. Helen slowly opened the envelope and read,

My Dearest Little Nell
As you can see I am still residing in the City of Angels. Your silence took the starch out of a booking to South America and I took a pass. I am waiting patiently for my partner to return from her world travels. Shall play nary a date till you arrive… will continue to play my hunches instead… and never doubt me even when I am not with you.

Below his note, Grant had sketched a whimsical map of the routes he planned to book for her return.
He cleverly illustrated the stops with leaning snowy mountains in Denver, oversized, smiling cactus in Phoenix, and swaying skyscrapers back in New York.
“Oh Grant Garrett, you are a charmer, and I do miss you,” she murmured, feeling a little sentimental.
“Helen, did you say something?” Grace asked, glancing up from her bed.
“Oh—no. Sorry, Grace. I didn’t mean to wake you,” the girl murmered.
Lying back on her pillow she mused, I can hardly believe it, but Grant hasn’t crossed my mind since I sailed in April. The tour has been so fast and so thrilling. For now, she yawned, I’m just glad to be here. I’m far enough away from those who spend all of their time planning my life.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January

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