You," said the man wearing blue-tinted eyeglasses. "You, with the long braid. Come here, s'il vous plaît." He crooked a finger, beckoning. "If you please."
It was not an invitation; it was a command. I glanced around at the other dancers. "Moi, Monsieur?" I replied. "You mean me?"
"Oui, oui-toi!" the man growled impatiently. "Yes, I mean you, Mademoiselle."
I knew who he was, although he had never before spoken to me: Monsieur Degas, the artist. All the dancers of the Paris Opéra ballet knew Monsieur Degas. He was often at the Palais Garnier, present at our morning classes and our afternoon rehearsals, sitting on a wooden chair in the corner with a drawing pad open on his knees, watching us through those eyeglasses or a pince-nez perched on his long nose. His pencil skimmed over the paper, scarcely pausing. We thought him peculiar, an eccentric kind of person, and we generally ignored him. Had he been sketching me just now, as I scratched my back and yawned?
The afternoon rehearsal was finished; the dancers were changing out of their practice tutus and slippers and into street clothes and sabots. I was tired and hungry, eager to be gone. What did he want of me?
He didn't wait for me to reply or to change my clothes but simply walked off, motioning for me to follow. I snatched up my old tartan shawl and ran after him, my wooden clogs echoing through the poorly lit maze of corridors in the opera house.
It was my mother's desire that my sisters and I become dancers. I had passed my fourteenth birthday in February, and since the age of nine I had been enrolled as a student at the ballet school of the Paris Opéra. Antoinette-seventeen-and I were now members of the corps de ballet; Charlotte, just eight, was only a petit rat, a "little rat." Maman's dream of a better life for us had meant long hours and many sacrifices, a daily struggle to survive.
As we hurried along without speaking, Monsieur Degas a few steps ahead, I wondered if he would ask me to pose for him. He left the Palais Garnier and strode rapidly up Rue de la Chaussée d'Antin toward Place Pigalle. The street was steep and narrow. A cold mist hung in the air. Still dressed in my practice tutu, my sleeveless bodice, and tights with holes in the knees, I shivered and wrapped the ragged shawl, which had provided feasts for generations of moths, tighter around my shoulders.
That morning I had been practicing at the barre, the wooden railing that ran the length of the classroom wall-polished by hundreds of hands that had clutched it during exercises. I was performing an arabesque, balanced on my left leg, right leg extended out straight behind me, head up, right arm curving gracefully, fingers held just so. From this position I moved to an attitude, similar to an arabesque but with the right knee slightly bent. I was certain that every muscle in my body had memorized the small differences between the two. But at that moment Madame Théodore clapped her hands and shouted across the room in her terrible grating voice, "Marie! Mademoiselle van Goethem! What is it you're doing, Mademoiselle? You look like a dog pissing!"
I heard the other girls smother their laughter in muffled gasps. I disliked them for laughing, but if I had been in their place, no doubt I, too, would have laughed. A dozen times a day she shouted at me, as she did at them, but this was the worst. Madame Théodore taught by humiliation. You prayed that she would never look your way, but sooner or later she always did, and her eyes, sharp as needles, missed nothing. Un chien pissant!
Tears stung my eyes. I bowed my head while she lectured me, blood rushing to my face. I had vowed that I would never weep in front of her, as many of the girls had. When she was through with me, I resumed my position at the barre, and Madame Théodore turned her piercing eye and biting tongue on someone else.
Now I trotted behind Monsieur Degas-_my sabots clattering on the damp cobblestones-_wondering if we were going to his studio but afraid to ask, lest he think me impudent. Cane tucked under his arm and cloak flapping about his stooped shoulders, he marched up the narrow street like a general at the head of an army. He wasn't a young man, for his closely cropped beard was streaked with gray. Although he was such a familiar figure at our classes and rehearsals, none of the students of the ballet school had seen the pictures he'd made of us. My sister Antoinette had sometimes posed for him, and she'd heard that his paintings fetched high prices from wealthy collectors. Maybe les étoiles, the stars of the ballet, saw his pictures. But not us, the lowly dancers of no importance.
He didn't say a word to me until we turned onto Rue Frochot and stopped in front of number four, a tall, narrow door with chipped green paint. I knew the place: I had been there before. My mother worked as a laundress, and Monsieur Degas was one of her customers. Each week Maman sent me or my older sister to pick up a wicker basket full of dirty linens and, later, to return the clean linens, ironed and carefully packed in the same basket. I had never been farther than the first-floor landing, never encountered Monsieur Degas himself; instead, I had handed the basket over to the housekeeper, Madame Sabine, and waited while she counted out the shirts and other linens, and then the sous that were owed. My sister Antoinette boasted that she had often been invited upstairs to his studio on the fifth floor.
"To model for him," she said. Then she added, "in the nude," and pursed her lips in an arch manner that made me want to pinch her.
I didn't know whether to believe her or not. Antoinette was a born liar. She'd lie for no particular reason, sometimes just to make herself look better or to make someone else look worse. I often lied, too, when I had something I wanted to hide, but I had to work at it and was never as successful as my sister. I didn't think it would have bothered Antoinette to take off her clothes for an artist. She was like that. I was certain it would bother me.
Now I followed Monsieur Degas up flight after flight of stairs. The higher we climbed, the more I worried what he might ask me to do and what I would say to him. When we reached the topmost floor, he pushed open the door on its creaking hinges. I hesitated. Only then did he turn to look at me. "My place of work," he said in his gravelly voice. "Come in."
I stepped over the high threshold and entered into chaos.
There were haphazard piles everywhere: dusty tutus; heaps of worn-out ballet slippers; a jumble of bowls, pitchers, books, and candlesticks; ladders; zinc bathing tubs; old wooden chairs; a small piano; a couple of violins and other musical instruments; a divan covered in dark red velvet rubbed bare of its nap. A battered worktable was strewn with tubes of paint, boxes of crayons, sticks of charcoal, jars of brushes, tangles of wire, and lumps of clay. A printing press with a large wheel occupied one corner. Several easels stood about like sentinels, some holding pictures; more pictures were stacked on the floor, facing the wall. I ran my fingertips along the edge of the worktable, and they came away gray with dust.
I don't believe Antoinette was here, I thought, gazing around the studio, or she would have stolen something and flaunted it.
Still wearing his hat and cloak, Monsieur Degas lit a gas lamp and seated himself on a tall wooden stool. He folded his arms across his chest and peered at me intently through his blue-tinted eyeglasses.
His steady gaze heightened my uneasiness. I wanted to turn and run down the stairs, but I lowered my eyes and forced myself to stay where I was. "Turn around," he said, and I hurried to do as he asked. "Slowly!"