Home > Lilac Girls(3)

Lilac Girls(3)
Martha Hall Kelly

“Do you want to change?” I resisted the urge to tidy his hair, which was long enough to pull back with a rubber band. “Shave perhaps?” According to his agent, M. Rodierre was a guest at the hotel, so his razor sat just a few stories overhead.

“This is what I wear,” he said with a shrug. Typical actor. Why hadn’t I known better? The parade of guests en route to the ballroom was growing, the women stunning in their finery, every man in tails and patent leather oxfords or calf opera pumps.

“This is my first gala,” I said. “The consulate’s one night to raise money. It’s white tie.” Would he fit into Father’s old tux? The inseam would be right, but it would be much too tight in the shoulders.

“Are you always this, well, energized, Miss Ferriday?”

“Well, here in New York, individuality is not always appreciated.” I handed him the stapled sheets. “I’m sure you’re eager to see the script.”

He handed it back. “No, merci.”

I pushed it back into his hands. “But the consul general himself wrote it.”

“Tell me again why I’m doing this?”

“It’s to benefit displaced French citizens all year and my French Families Fund. We help orphans back in France whose parents have been lost for any number of reasons. With all the uncertainty abroad, we’re one reliable source of clothes and food. Plus, the Rockefellers will be there tonight.”

He paged through the speech. “They could write a check and avoid this whole thing.”

“They’re among our kindest donors, but please don’t refer to them. Or President Roosevelt. Or the planes the U.S. sold France. Some of our guests tonight love France, of course, but would rather stay out of a war for now. Roger wants to avoid controversy.”

“Dancing around things never feels authentic. The audience feels that.”

“Can you just stick to the script, Monsieur?”

“Worrying can lead to heart failure, Miss Ferriday.”

I pulled the pin from the lily of the valley. “Here—a boutonnière for the guest of honor.”

“Muguet?” M. Rodierre said. “Where did you find that this time of year?”

“You can get anything in New York. Our florist forces it from pips.”

I rested my palm against his lapel and dug the pin deep into the French velvet. Was that lovely fragrance from him or the flowers? Why didn’t American men smell like this, of tuberose and wood musk and—

“You know lily of the valley is poisonous, right?” M. Rodierre said.

“So don’t eat it. At least not until you’ve finished speaking. Or if the crowd turns on you.”

He laughed, causing me to step back. Such a genuine laugh, something rarely found in polite society, especially where my jokes were concerned.

I escorted M. Rodierre backstage and stood awed by the enormity of the stage, twice the size of any I’d stood upon on Broadway. We looked out over the ballroom to the sea of tables lit by candlelight, like flowery ships in the darkness. Though dimmed, the Waterford crystal chandelier and its six satellites shimmered.

“This stage is enormous,” I said. “Can you carry it?”

M. Rodierre turned to me. “I do this for a living, Miss Ferriday.”

Fearing I’d only antagonize him further, I left M. Rodierre and the script backstage, trying to dismiss my brown-suede-shoe fixation. I hurried to the ballroom to see if Pia had executed my seating chart, more detailed and dangerous than a Luftwaffe flight plan. I saw she’d simply tossed several cards onto the six Rockefeller tables, so I rearranged them and took my place close to the stage between the kitchen and the head table. Three stories of red-draped boxes rose up around the vast room, each with its own dinner table. All seventeen hundred seats would be filled, a lot of unhappy people if all didn’t go well.

The guests assembled and took their seats, an ocean of white ties, old mine diamonds, and enough rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré gowns to clean out most of Paris’s best shops. The girdles alone would ensure both Bergdorf and Goodman reached their third-quarter sales goals.

A row of journalists collected alongside me, pulling their pencils out from behind their ears. The headwaiter stood poised at my elbow, awaiting the cue to serve. Elsa Maxwell entered the room—gossipmonger, professional party hostess, and self-promoter ne plus ultra. Would she remove her gloves to write terrible things about this night in her column or just memorize the horror of it all?

The tables were almost full when Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, known to Roger as “Her Grace,” arrived, her four-story Cartier diamond necklace ablaze at her chest. I gave the signal to serve as Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bottom made contact with her seat cushion, her white fox stole, complete with head and feet, draped over her chair back. The lights dimmed, and Roger lumbered to the spotlighted podium to heartfelt applause. I’d never been this nervous when I was the one onstage.

“Mesdames et Messieurs, Foreign Minister Bonnet sends his sincerest apologies, but he cannot be here tonight.” The crowd buzzed, not sure how to react to disappointment. Did one ask for one’s money refunded by mail? Call Washington?

Roger held up one hand. “But we have convinced another Frenchman to speak tonight. Though not appointed to a government role, he is a man cast in one of the best roles on Broadway.”

The guests whispered to one another. There is nothing like a surprise, provided it’s a good one.

“Please allow me to welcome M. Paul Rodierre.”

M. Rodierre bypassed the podium and headed for center stage. What was he doing? The spotlight cast around the stage for a few moments, trying to locate him. Roger took his seat at the head table, next to Mrs. Vanderbilt. I stood nearby, but outside of strangling range.

“It’s my great pleasure to be here tonight,” M. Rodierre said, once the spotlight found him. “I am terribly sorry M. Bonnet could not make it.”

Even sans microphone, M. Rodierre’s voice filled the room. He practically glowed in the spotlight.

“I am a poor replacement for such a distinguished guest. I hope it wasn’t trouble with his plane. I’m sure President Roosevelt will be happy to send him a new one if it was.”

A swell of nervous laughter rolled around the room. I didn’t have to look at the journalists to know they were scribbling. Roger, skilled in the art of the tête-à-tête, managed to speak with Mrs. Vanderbilt and send daggers my way at the same time.

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