Mama or one of her kind patrons had sent Ethelie off to the convent as a child so she wouldn’t be in the way. The Abbess wasn’t too concerned about the background of the girls as long as the bills were paid. And occasionally a little extra was paid. Then Mama had the poor sense to die when Ethelie was 16. It was decided Ethelie had been educated enough and should be taken in by an aunt so that she may learn to earn her living as a companion, a governess, or whatever the chaotic world felt appropriate for a girl of questionable parentage. (There were rumours that her father was a duke, a banker from a powerful family, or that one painter that had been fashionable twenty years ago.)
Ethelie thanks to her aunt’s connections and a letter of reference from convent found a place as a governess for a family with two young girls. She spent her time in the school room teaching literature, fixing their knitting, having them practice their scales on the pianoforte, or out on supervised walks through the park. Occasionally stopping in the conservatory to smell the tropical plants and teach Marie-Celeste, and Mathilde the parts of a flower, from the sticky stigma on the pistil to the carefully hidden ovule. It was an orderly life with occasional visits from the parents to see the efforts of their employee, and the children. Monsieur didn’t figure much in Ethelie’s daily life until Madame was called away to visit her ailing Mother in Nantes.
Madame had told her plain cousin Pauline to keep an eye on the governess. Madame didn’t know that Monsieur had been engaging in a flirtation with plain cousin Pauline for years so it was a futile request. Madame should have told the cook to put something in the soup to make her husband behave. Monsieur took to joining the governess and the girls on their walks to the park. He said, “you should be painted. Your eyes call for it. They should be recorded for history.” He introduced her to his friend, “a painter who should be on every wall.” The painting of Ethelie appeared at the exhibition. “Ethelie: Tentation” Madame was mortified. Especially as she knew that Monsieur was a patron of the painter. She came home and dismissed Ethelie. Immediately.
Her aunt didn’t want scandal touching her life, no one would hire Ethelie to educate the daughters of respectable people, and the only other home she had known was the convent and she refused to go there. Ethelie turned to the painter as he had had a hand in her ruin. He was happy to help as the exhibition has brought him commissions. He found her a small room in the flat of his cousin Babette who made costumes for cancan dancers. They suggested she try going on stage. “You have nice ankles, you know how to dance, and maybe you could find a reliable patron.” Life in the chorus was chaotic and wonderful. She became a star, featured on postcards and posters on the streets. One night she saw Monsieur in the audience. She told revelers, “there is the man who sold my respectability and gave me a few francs for the privilege.” Everyone laughed and pointed until he left in shame. Ethelie was everyone’s favorite and she sipped it up quickly like the artists in the bar sipped the green fairy.
Long gone was the tiny room in Babette’s. Now she had a suite of rooms thanks to the Count, (though Babette was still with her to tend to Ethelie’s frocks and costumes) and he insisted she give up dancing. “You are too good for that and I need you.” She was his exotic bird that he loved to display. Ethelie was the muse. The desire. The wit. She had her salon, her appearances, and she could dictate the direction of the wind or tide. Just ask any man. But no one asked her. Belladonna in her eyes, opium in her stomach, and her heart was always a little empty. Not even the pretty daughter kept in Normandy could fill the space. Then the cough from her lungs began to fill everything in her day and night.
Ethelie was sent to Switzerland. The Count never visited. He paid the bills, made promises to visit but something always came up. Her daughter was cared for. (The one thing she got in writing at Josephine’s birth was an allowance for her care.) Only Babette and the Painter came to see her in the mountains. Trying to cheer her with gossip and news. Eventually she was cured but everyone had moved onto the next fashion. It was time to return to work. But what could she do? She taught little girls to dance, gave lessons in Italian, and mended dresses with Babette. Buttons were her specialty.
Some said she had gone abroad, others said she had died, or moved to Normandy. (The same in some people’s eyes) then a writer for a magazine found the once legendary Ethelie working as a concierge. The old woman who complained about people tracking in mud, and making sure the entryway looked neat. “I have two nice rooms, and once a week I watch the little girl who lives on the third floor while her mama goes out. We watch the dancing on television. It’s nice. Why bring up the past? It’s over. It’s dull.” Then she is asked about the lost painting. Ethelie: Tentation. Supposedly taken by the nazis or burned in a fire by Madame. Ethelie laughs. The Painter gave it to her. Told her to sell it if she ever needed the money. It hangs in her room next to her little bed. The writer asked her why she didn’t sell it. She could buy a house and comfort. Ethelie said, “I have had enough of myself sold over the years. This is one piece of me I refuse to sell, and I will always control. When I die, it will go to my Josephine. Maybe it will buy her a bit more freedom than her Mama ever had.” She offered the writer more coffee before she went to water the plants. Fin.