Ten Lords a Leaping
One day passed, and then another. We’d reached the middle of June. My mood was as consistent as the fractious spring weather, sunny and warm for a few moments followed by spitting rain. As much as I’d hoped someone would come forward with knowledge of Elias’s whereabouts, I’d had no response to the advertisement I’d placed. I’d given up asking artists on the street. In all honesty, I came very close to giving up altogether.
Again, Louis saved me from myself. After a fruitless day in the Latin Quarter, another neighborhood I would cross off my map, I came upon him sitting at a sidewalk table outside Bleu.
If he hadn’t hailed me, I might not have stopped. “Louis.”
“Join me for dinner?” He tossed a few francs on his table, gripped his cane, and rose. “We’ll go to Le Bon Bock. I doubt you’ve been there.”
I smiled, both because I had the he’d been waiting for me and because I was grateful for an excuse to put aside my worries. “You’re right.”
“It’s not far.” He joined me on the sidewalk, and with a smile, he brushed my elbow. “This way.”
The shock of his touch chased easy conversation from my mind. I strode beside him, silent and shy, until I grasped an idea and blurted it out. “ what did happen to your leg?”
We were navigating one of the stairways connecting the curving streets on Montmartre. Although I’d promised I wouldn’t push Louis, his obvious difficulty bothered me. His quick glare told me I should have let the subject alone, yet he surprised me with an answer.
“When I was nineteen.” He turned his attention back to the stairs, grasping the railing with his right hand and navigating each step with the help of his cane. He moved with strength and grace, as if his whole being concentrated on each step.
While I didn’t want to annoy him with a barrage of questions, we’d be at the bistro soon. He might close off in more intimate surroundings, so I picked a single point of inquiry.
“Do you ever stand without the brace?”
His scowl darkened. “Non. The leg is shrunken, weak.”
We walked side by side, and when he didn’t continue, I did not press. At the end of the block, my patience was rewarded.
“From the time I was a child, I wanted to dance. My older brothers were fighters and sportsmen, but I had no interest in those things.”
He paused for long enough I began to debate prompting him with a question. guarded. What had happened to make him that way?
“Ma didn’t understand dancing, but she understood passion. Papa thought I should take up boxing.” He caught my eye. “Boxing,” he laughed.
I only smiled, because honestly, I wouldn’t want to face him in a ring, cane or not.
“But then the Ballets Russes came, and everyone on the street was talking about Nijinsky.” Another pause, this one heavier. “They were brave, and wild, and when he danced, it was as if the spirit of the earth itself took form.” He stopped and cleared his throat. “. I only saw him once, but…” His voice faded away.
The crowded street, the traffic, all the people passing on the sidewalk became indistinct, distant. Instead, I saw a man on stage, his limbs strong and supple, dancing with inhuman strength and beauty.
Though in my mind, the man’s shoulders were broad, his hair dark and sleek, and his face that of Louis Donadieu.
We reached Le Bon Bock, and I pushed open the door. Louis smiled on his way by, eyes still caught up in his memories. Gaslights warmed the wood paneling, art covered the wall, and each table was draped in white linen. When we were seated, Louis continued his story.
“Then the war began.” His murmur drew me closer, the scent of his pomade a heady undercurrent to the more robust smell of garlic and roasted beef. “Both of my older brothers signed up. I said I would go, but ma insisted I continue my studies. By then, my teacher was Mlle. . She was very stern, and nearly as gifted as her brother.
“ I made my debut with the Ballets Russes. That was…astonishing.” He smiled at his face transformed by an inner light. “But then”—he looked the light extinguishedI fell ill. There was an outbreak of influenza in the city, but when I recovered, my leg was very weak. The doctors said I had polio.”
Of course. “I thought maybe you’d damaged the knee joint.”
His smile was back, sad and sweet. “Non, mon . I’m fortunate it didn’t affect my breathing.”
“True.” Polio extracted a heavy toll, and Louis was lucky to be alive. I didn’t know of any good treatments for the effects of that horrible disease, but surely there must be something.
“One of my friends found a brace at the Saint-Ouen market. With it, I can walk.” He gave a careless shrug. “I cannot dance, but I can walk.”
By now, I recognized the loss he tried to cover with an indifferent attitude. I’d seen it, raw and naked, at the Théâtre de . This was not the time to coddle him with trite statements about his good fortune. Instead, I sat with him, offering comfort with my presence rather than words. A waiter brought beer and cheese, and in time, our gazes met, clashed.
Neither of us looked away.
My lungs grew tight and my pulse pounded in my ears. He shifted closer, or maybe I did, so close his breath brushed against my cheek.
“Tell me more about your friend.”
I inhaled deeply, breaking the spell. “Elias?”
“You said you helped him court the woman he wanted.”
“Margaret Anne?” Could that rough sound be my voice? I hardly knew.
“Oui.” He smiled. “But has there ever been anyone for you?”
Yes? No? “I’m not like that.”
“Like what, Benji?”
I gulped at my beer, desperate to change the course of the conversation. We needed the waiter to bring us another round, or Elias himself to wander in off the street, or the ceiling to cave in on our heads. “I don’t seem to be as interested in affairs of the heart as other men are, certainly not as interested as Elias is. It’s a failing of mine.”
“Failing? I wouldn’t call it that. You could be extremely selective.” The precision of his speech felt like fingertips on my skin. “Besides, men like us seldom take things seriously.” He shifted in his seat, and I jumped, startled by the sensation of his knee bumping mine. I should have moved, scooted my chair away, but instead, I pressed harder.
“What are you doing?” he asked, and I found I could not answer. The waiter chose this moment to arrive, and soon we had large platters of sausage with crispy fried potatoes to distract us. Still, my knee rested against his under the table, sending electric shocks through my veins with every move.
Louis’s question echoed. What was I doing? This flirtation was dangerous, potentially catastrophic. I had no time for such a distraction. Hell, I’d spent the last two days drowning in fear, and I was only a few weeks from my departure.
But like Eve who craved the taste of apple, I could not stop. Every bite of sausage had more flavor because of Louis’s gaze. The beer was made livelier by his smile.
The perilous nature of this conversation woke my soul to a painful degree.