of Lights Excerpt: Diva in the Wings
from City of Lights: The Trials and Triumphs of Ilyse Charpentier,
Chapter 1, A Chance Meeting
balmy night air of August had served to fill the halls of La Perle de Paris to
capacity once again. Not a seat was unoccupied, save one quiet table in a
secluded, unlit corner of the club—a table that was always reserved. The chants
had commenced long ago, a gradual build from a quiet murmur to a dull
roar—“Coquette, Coquette, Vive la Coquette!” The raucous mob wanted
their star, and in a moment, their hunger would be satisfied.
“Ten minutes, everyone!” a burly man
bellowed, pushing his way through a mass of tulle and silk. He made his way
down the backstage corridor until he came upon a solitary girl stealing a peek
through the Tyrian purple-hued curtains.
“Ten minutes, Ilyse, get ready!” he
“Yes, Giverne,” she returned,
smiling, and watched as he huffed down the hall. In a moment, her olive-brown
eyes were once again fixed upon the throng, and she resumed rehearsing her
lines. “City of Lights, Paree, do you see?” she sang, “I am the Diva on
the stage. Hope—” But her soft chanting was suddenly interrupted by a wild
flurry running down the corridor. In an instant, the commotion materialized
into a profusion of blonde tendrils,
which framed a pleasant round face and a pair of large, over-bright blue eyes.
“You’re late, Manon,” Ilyse said,
trying to sound reproachful as she addressed the frazzled young woman.
The girl panted stertorously while
she tried to straighten her costume and smooth her unruly curls. “Well, you
know how it is. Wardrobe problems.”
“Yes,” Ilyse answered, a knowing
smirk playing about the corners of her mouth. “I know exactly how it is
… too much chocolat, no?”
Manon stopped her primping and looked
up at her dearest friend. “I can’t help it if I have a sweet tooth!” she
blurted out. “Now stop all this nonsense and fasten me up, will you?”
“Oh, very well,” Ilyse laughed, and
abandoned her post to come to her disheveled friend’s rescue. “Now, hold it
“I can’t,” Manon squeaked.
“Well, that’s because you’re not
wearing your corset.”
“Never!” Manon retorted as if someone
had just accused her of killing Marat. “I can’t wear that monstrous thing. It
crushes me terribly. And what’s more, I can’t even breathe with it on.”
“No one ever said beauty was
painless, darling,” Ilyse said, not having any luck in her struggle to hook the
fasteners on Manon’s dress.
“Well, this beauty will go
“Then it’s hopeless.” Ilyse sighed
and released her hold on Manon’s costume. “You’ll have to play ‘Sourd et Muet’
“Ah, ma foi, such is my fate.”
For a time, silence reigned, each
girl fighting not to be the first to laugh. Finally, as always, Ilyse was the
first to break. “Oh, stop playing the martyr, you ridiculous fool!”
Manon made a lavish bow and struck a
theatrical pose. “Don’t you think we should use that in the act?” she
suggested, her large cerulean eyes widening expectantly.
“Oh, most definitely,” Ilyse
acquiesced, still laughing. “If only we can get Giverne’s
“Forget it, then. Now, enough about
Giverne. Is my Marquis out there?”
Before Ilyse had time to stop her,
Manon had pulled back the curtain and poked her head into the hall. “Oh, I see
him, the darling,” she cooed, spying her Marquis and flailing her bejeweled
hand through the air in a gesture that was meant to be a wave but never
amounted to more than a flash of rubies and emeralds.
“Don’t wave at him, you fool!” Ilyse
whispered, and just as she said this, the glare of the candlelit hall vanished
and Manon found herself staring at a suffocating wall of purple velvet and her
friend’s less-than-pleased face. “Discretion, Manon,” Ilyse reminded, fighting
to repress the smile that was threatening to destroy her facade of seriousness,
“discretion. We are not to be seen or heard until our grand entrance. How do
you expect to keep the Marquis interested?”
“I suppose that’s true,” Manon
agreed. “But I couldn’t help taking just one peek.” Ilyse smiled at her impish
friend and noticed that Manon’s irrepressible dimples had appeared—a certain
sign of trouble. Whenever those two little indentations arose, Ilyse knew she
had to do something to damp Manon’s mischief or there was no telling what
social atrocity, however hysterical it might seem in hindsight—and there had
been many—her friend might commit.
“If you’re so interested in peeking,
my little sprite, then I have a wonderful surprise for you.”
“I love surprises!” Manon answered
“You’re going to adore this
one. Now, if you really want to peek, you must do it like so.” Ilyse took hold
of Manon’s hand and drew back a corner of the curtain so that only a sliver of
light shone through. “Look who’s here.”
“Where, where?!” Manon squealed, her
eyes roving over the crowded room.
“Why, there in the back. If it isn’t
Gaspard and his troupe of provincial darlings! Oh, what fun it will be for you
to dance with them. And look! That fat one in the front has seen you! Oh, wave,
Manon, wave and show him your smile! Make that Marquis of yours insanely
jealous!” Ilyse uttered a musical little fake-laugh and gave Manon a playful
Manon let the curtain fall from her
grasp as though it had singed her fingers and stared at Ilyse. “I find your
humor lacking, Ilyse” Manon said sourly. “The last time I danced with Gaspard’s
band of ruffians I couldn’t walk for a week and my feet will never forgive you
for pushing me into that rustic’s arms!”
“Oh, come now, Manon,” Ilyse
laughed, “It’s my job to liven things up a bit, too. I can’t let you and your
dimples have all the fun.”
“All right, all right,” Manon said,
rising to the challenge, “Well, I saw my Marquis, and I saw Gaspard and his
bumpkins, God save my feet, but I didn’t see him.”
The instant Ilyse heard this word,
all her previous mirth vanished and a terrible mix of anger and fear roiled
within her. “Sergei?”
“No…No,” Manon stumbled. “Not him, never
him. I meant your ‘one true love,’ of course.”
Ilyse’s brow relaxed and her lips
curled into a faint smile as she remembered the little secret she and Manon
“Oh, Manon, for the five years we
have known one another, you’ve never missed an opportunity of showing me how
hopelessly naïve I actually am. Well, who’s to say he’s not out there? What
harm is there in hoping, however futile the hope may be? This nightly ritual is
my escape. Don’t begrudge me this little reprieve.”
Manon, usually so effervescent,
seemed crushed by her dearest friend’s accusations and blushed with shame.
“Ilyse, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I never meant to make light of your
feelings. Don’t hold it against me, ma soeur, don’t.”
Regardless of what had passed, Ilyse
was incapable of holding a grudge against her confidant and only friend. “I
know you meant no harm, Manon. Forgive me for acting so maudlin, it’s just that
I feel as though I can’t keep up this charade much longer. If I didn’t have you
to make me laugh and be my one light in this darkness, I don’t know how I
could’ve survived all these years. He torments me by day with his
ceaseless advances, and at night, even while
I’m onstage, he finds a way to invade my peace. He’s always there, waiting for
me to give in. But I swear I won’t. I don’t fear him as I did before. My fear
has been overtaken by anger and turned to defiance. I hate him, Manon.
It sickens my heart terribly.” Ilyse lifted her eyes and saw Manon standing
motionless, lost in thought. Though she didn’t say a word, Ilyse knew exactly
what was racing through Manon’s mind, for she had heard it all before—the
painful memories of the past that bore uncanny similarities to the existence
Ilyse had described. But in Manon’s circumstances, unspeakable terror had never
allowed defiance to surface. She had been an impressionable young girl,
dreaming of stardom, allowing him to lead her down a path from which there
could be no return. He had robbed her of her fortune, although he was richer
than all the kings of Europe combined, and destroyed everything she held dear.
She refused his advances, and when she tried to escape, he committed a crime so
drastic that she was forced to keep silent or die. Luc Dagenais had been her
one true love, and the innocent Provencal had been murdered simply because he
had given her his heart—an unpardonable offense in the eyes of her jealous
patron. And so the years passed, and Manon fell out of favor, replaced by
Gervaise, Collette, Brigitte, and finally Ilyse, who had become his most
favorite of all. She had stayed for her dearest friend, and also because La
Perle offered her the only respectable means of survival—a cabaret where she
could earn a decent living without selling her soul to the devil himself. So
was the fate of Manon Larue.
And Ilyse knew the vicious cycle
would continue until she herself put a stop to it. But those were thoughts for
another moment, for the public would not be kept waiting. The crowd was
restless. Violent invectives were being hurled, if the mob were not satisfied,
chaos would break loose. The star’s time had come.
Giverne blustered through the line of
dancing girls, nearly stampeded Manon into oblivion, and snatched Ilyse by the
arm. “You, now,” he boomed, “get onstage!!!” And before she had time to blink,
he had already begun to raise the curtain.
“Bonne chance, Ilyse!” Manon squealed,
but her voice was drowned by the crowd’s rabid cries.
La Petite Coquette had arrived!
Parisian cabaret scene by night and the unwilling obsession of her patron,
Count Sergei Rakmanovich, at every other waking moment.
Coquette” of the Paris stage has turned out to be anything but the glamorous
existence she had dreamt of as a girl. As a young woman, Ilyse has already
suffered tragedy and become estranged from her beloved brother, Maurice, who
blames her for allowing the Count to drive them apart.
herself to banish all thoughts of independence until the night Ian McCarthy
waltzes into her life. Immediately taken with the bold, young, British
expatriate, Ilyse knows it is time to choose: will she break free and
follow her heart or will she remain a slave to her patron’s jealous wrath for
the rest of her life?
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