In the weeks after his triumphant debut at Andre Cassell's nightclub, Count Victor Grazinski received a trickle of invitations to dinners and parties from throughout the Parisian entertainment circuit. That trickle quickly became a flood as his fame spread with each performance.
"You know, you really must attend at least a few of these functions," Carole Todd said, retrieving a stack of unopened envelopes from the wastebasket into which Victoria had wearily tossed them. "We wouldn't want you to gain a reputation as a diva -- at least not until after you've extended your contract with Cassell at triple your current rates."
"I'm more worried about gaining a reputation as a phoney!" Victoria fired back, loosening her tie. "Surely it's less harmful to my career to be thought of as a reclusive artiste than to be recognized as an Englishwoman -- emphasis on the woman."
Toddy flipped through the stack of invitations, humming thoughtfully to himself. "Come now... enjoy your fame while it lasts. This is why you put on trousers in the first place, isn't it? Besides, there will be canapés."
Victoria let out a sigh of relief as she uncoupled the clasp on the elastic holding down her bosoms. She slipped into a soft woolen nightgown and robe, tying the belt loosely at her waist. "Well, I suppose attending a party or two in menswear and a breastband in exchange for canapés and wine is a significantly better deal than I was prepared to make just a few weeks ago." Climbing under the bed's goosedown-stuffed covers, she sighed again happily and prepared to go to sleep. "I'll leave it all in your capable hands."
A few days later, they prepared to attend Victor's first soirée, in response to an invitation that Toddy insisted Victoria dare not refuse. "Who is the host?" Victoria asked as they waited in their hotel lobby for the hired car to arrive.
"Louis Leplée," Toddy replied. "He's the most important manager in Paris, and if he takes a fancy to you -- or to Victor, rather -- your career will be secure."
"I thought you said that Andre Cassell was the most important manager in Paris?"
"Andre, my dear friend, is the most important manager in Paris who actually knows my name," Toddy corrected. "He is simply the door into which we could most easily put your foot -- so to speak."
"And isn't that a colorful image?" Victoria muttered, sliding a finger between her collar and her throat in a vain attempt to loosen the shirt at the neck. How men wore ties and collars every day was beyond her -- she could barely breathe, and she didn't even have an Adam's apple to get in the way. While Toddy was looking out the window, she unbuttoned the top button -- no one would see whether it was done up properly anyway, as long as she kept her scarf on all night.
The car arrived at last, and the two scurried into the back seat quickly. The night air was chilly despite their overcoats.
"Leplée owns a nightclub just off the Champs-Élysées. Now, Cassell's club is a lovely place, but in this business the three most important words are location, location, and location. Leplée can attract a higher class of clientele than Cassell... as much higher as Cassell's audience is above the riff-raff at Chez Lui. That means Leplée can charge his customers more, and pay his entertainers a better rate. And his theater is four times larger than Cassell's."
"It seems a bit underhanded and unethical to me to go sniffing after a new contract when we've barely begun to perform for Cassell."
"Oh, we'll fulfill our contract with Cassell, my dear... but it can't hurt to have someone else lined up when the contract is up for renewal. Besides, Cassell could have a heart attack tomorrow, or go bankrupt; it is best not to leave too much to chance."
"And, of course, there are the free canapés."
"You learn quickly. I'll corrupt you yet, my dear Victor." Todd patted her hand fondly.
At Leplée's apartment, a butler took their coats at the door. Victoria glared menacingly at the man when he made a motion as if to take her scarf as well. The butler sniffed and turned away, unimpressed.
"Ah, there he is," Toddy said, gesturing at a broad-shouldered Frenchman who was approaching the pair with a warm smile.
"Welcome!" the man said, holding out his hand for each of them to clasp. Victoria squeezed back firmly -- perhaps too firmly, as Leplée winced when she clutched him. She quickly let go.
"Monsieur Leplée, allow me to present the Count Victor Grazinski."
"Ah, Count Grazinski. Your performance last week is the talk of all Paris! We are delighted to have you."
"Thank you for the kind invitation," Victoria replied, with a nod of her head.
"It is so exciting! My home will be full of nobility tonight! At any time now, I am expecting your countryman, the Duke Boguslaw Zeromski. Perhaps you know him? And we are also graced tonight with the presence of a King!" Leplée gestured to his side with a laugh, and Victoria's heart leapt to her throat, right where her Adam's apple wasn't. King Marchand approached, looking dashing as ever, with his simpering girlfriend on one arm and his bodyguard standing a few paces behind.
As soon as they could move on without being rude, Victoria and Toddy escaped their enthusiastic host -- and King Marchand's party. Marchand had said little, but he had watched Victoria with eagle eyes while his moll burbled enthusiastically about Victor's performance, and how eager they all were to see him perform again, and how King had been totally fooled by the act. Once they reached a secluded corner near the buffet, Victoria leaned in to Todd's ear and hissed, "We need to get out of here!"
Toddy turned to her, eyebrows arched in surprise. "What ever do you mean? We just got here! You haven't even tried the hors d'oeuvres yet!"
"Yes, but didn't you hear what our host said? He's expecting a member of the Polish nobility to arrive at any moment! Authentic Polish nobility! I may be pretending to speak only limited English and French, but I assure you my Polish is far, far worse!"
"A trifle!" Toddy exclaimed. "We can insist that it is rude to speak Polish at a Frenchman's party and must converse in our host's tongue."
"Toddy," she warned. "This Duke Zerov-- Zemoz-- ugh, with all these unpronounceable names, you might as well have said I was from Budapest..."
"You haven't the bone structure. Nor the eyebrows."
"Well, in any case, Duke Zerwhatsit will surely know that I'm no more Polish than I am the... the... Queen of Sheba!"
"You're far too pale-skinned for that role, either, my dear. And too tense for the role in which you've already been cast! It's a party! At least pretend to be relaxed! I've told you, no one expects you to actually be a noble, or even Polish. Those are simply smoke and mirrors. While people are busy disbelieving your ethnicity and pedigree, they will remain blind to your gender. Now stand high, but keep your voice low; I see the King is about to grace you with another royal audience."
Victoria's spine stiffened, as Toddy slinked away, abandoning her. Traitor, she thought.
"Count Grazinski," Marchand greeted her. "Wine?" he offered, holding out a glass.
"Thank you," Victoria replied, remembering to keep her voice a little raspy. "But please, call me Victor. The title is... a meaningless thing." More so than you could imagine.
"I'm glad to see you again," Marchand continued. "I haven't been able to get your performance out of my head since I saw your act last week. The illusion truly was remarkable. Anyone would think you'd been wearing a dress all your life."
"Thank you again," Victoria answered. "I'm glad you enjoyed my act."
"Ah, but just how much of it was an act, I wonder?"
Victoria's voice rose a little in pitch. "Well, I've been practising for some time now. Ever since I was a child, really. My sister's wardrobe was never safe from me." She glanced around the room, looking for an escape. Toddy, that flirt, was chatting up Marchand's bodyguard, who seemed a bit flushed from the attention. Marchand's girlfriend had cornered Leplée and was giggling vampishly at something their host had said. A blur of color at the door caught her attention, as a man in some sort of ribbon-bedecked military uniform entered the room from the entrance hall.
Oh bloody hell.
Duke Boguslaw Zeromski was bogus, all right.
He was her ex-husband.
Hastily, Victoria moved over to the nearby buffet to fill a napkin with hors d'oeuvres, the movement providing an excuse to set her back to the rest of the room. Marchand, seeing her sudden agitation, followed with an amused smirk.
"Ah, I see you know our friend the Polish duke. You must be sure to introduce us."
Victoria glared at Marchand, and cursed herself for reacting so obviously. "I'm afraid that is impossible. He's a close friend of my parents, you see, and they have disowned me," she lied smoothly. "I expect that even if he were willing to speak to me here, that he would pretend not to know me."
"Disinherited, eh? Is that why you took to the stage in a dress?"
"Quite the reverse, I'm afraid," Victoria said, resisting the temptation to look over her shoulder as she dissembled. "Perhaps my parents could have lived with a stage performer as a son -- noble titles are as common as grass in Poland, and do not mean quite so much as in some other countries -- but a stage-performing homosexual transvestite son was quite out of the question."
"Homosexual transvestite? Isn't that redundant?"
"Not at all. They are not a bit the same thing. It is my understanding that transvestitism is far more common among heterosexual men than among homosexuals, at least in the privacy of one's home. In public, however, it may be that violating one taboo gives them -- us -- the courage to violate other taboos as well. In any case, just look at Toddy. No one would confuse him for a woman, no matter how you dressed him; nor would he want you to."
"But you are a homosexual? And, ah, seeing Mr. Todd?"
"Yes. I am a man who loves Mr. Todd, and who -- quite separately -- enjoys singing for an audience while wearing a dress. And, to answer your earlier question, that particular combination of traits goes rather farther in Paris than it would have in my native Poland." She turned to survey the room. The so-called duke was engaged in conversation with... oh merde... Toddy's ex-boyfriend, the execrable Richard. Why on earth was he at this party? Toddy didn't seem to have noticed the new arrival yet. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go rescue your shadow from my -- ah, boyfriend's advances. And you should perhaps rescue your girlfriend from Louis Leplée."
Marchand grimaced at the mention of his girlfriend, but Victoria had succeeded in distracting him. He looked across the room to where she was flirting with their host. "I should rescue him from her, you mean. But who will rescue me?" He stalked away, obviously dissatisfied with the conclusion of their conversation. Victoria was glad to have escaped from the encounter with King Marchand with her cover story intact, but she would surely not be so lucky in deceiving her ex-husband.
"Pardon me, Monsieur Bernstein, was it not? I need to borrow Monsieur Todd for a moment."
At her words, the big man looked curiously disappointed. "Sure. I should go look after my boss anyway. Nice meeting you again, Mr. Todd." With a nod of goodbye, Mr. Bernstein crossed the room to take his accustomed place a few steps behind King Marchand, who was glaring at Miss Cassady and Monsieur Leplée.
Victoria dismissed King Marchand's problems; she and Toddy had enough of their own to be getting on with.
"Toddy, we really must leave now," Victoria said in a low voice.
"Have you tried the toast Melba with the foie gras? Simply divine!" Toddy replied, snagging another hors d'oeuvre from the tray of a passing waiter, who was giving Victoria a funny look. She adjusted her scarf, using the move as a cover to check that her bosoms were still well-restrained at the same time. They were. She was just being paranoid.
"Toddy. We can order canapés at our own hotel tomorrow. All you can stuff in your mouth. But now, we need to leave." She tugged at his arm urgently as she spoke.
"What is the hurry? Are you worried about Richard? Oh yes, I caught the stench of his particular brand of cheap cologne as soon as he walked in. Don't worry; by now that sponge has found another ship to cling to -- or do I mean barnacle? I was never much for the sea..."
"Toddy. I mean it. That man with the chestful of medals is as much a Polish duke as I am. It's my ex-husband."
Toddy peered over her shoulder to get a better look at the man. "Your ex-husband is Polish? Ah, no, I remember... he ran off with the manager of the Bath Touring Light Opera Company, and stranded you in Paris without two francs to rub together, yes? How droll! Why on earth would he be here?"
"I don't know, and I don't care to find out! My point is, he will recognize me."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that," Toddy said thoughtfully. "You've cut your hair and are dressed as a man; people see what they expect to see. And besides, he appears to be travelling incognito as well..."
Their conversation was interrupted by the clanking of a metal fork on a wineglass. Their host, Monsieur Leplée, stood in the center of the room beside a waifish young woman.
"Welcome, my guests! I hope you all are enjoying this party as much as I am! It is my pleasure to introduce you all to one of Paris' rising stars..." Victoria stiffened; Toddy had made no mention of having to perform for her supper! But a moment later, her ego was deflated as Leplée continued. "I present to you my latest discovery, Miss Édith Gassilon! Please, sing for us, my little sparrow!"
Victoria grabbed a flute of champagne from the waiter as he walked past and downed it in a single swig. Thank God. She chuckled softly at herself; one week of encores and roses, and already she was a diva!
The singer, a scrawny Frenchwoman in a black dress, stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, the center of all attention. Victoria tugged again at Toddy's sleeve; this would be a perfect time to make their escape. As the woman began to sing, Toddy smacked gently at her hand and shook his head with a frown; he did not want to offend their host by leaving in the middle of this young star's performance.
Victoria bit her lip and surveyed the audience, only half paying attention to the singer. Marchand and his party were on the far side of the room; Marchand watched the singer with some interest, while Norma Cassady glared at Marchand and pouted. Bernstein was staring across the room at Richard, who -- oh dear -- was feeding hors d'oeuvres to a finely-dressed woman of advanced years. Leplée, standing beside Victoria's ex-husband, was watching the singer as well and beaming proudly. The woman's voice, which had at first been tentative, now rang with confidence as she became lost in her own music.
Victoria sighed, resigned to whatever fate might bring. At least the singer was very good. Victoria couldn't help but feel a momentary pang of envy that this Édith woman could be a woman. How much simpler her life must be!
At the end of the performance, the guests at the party clapped enthusiastically. The young woman bowed, and retreated quickly to another room. Victoria turned to ask Toddy again if they could leave yet, but was stopped by a polite tap on the shoulder. Leplée was at her side... with her ex-husband, the 'duke.' Victoria was trapped.
"Count Grazinski! Did you enjoy my little sparrow's performance? With another month or two of practice, I think she will be ready to headline at Le Gerny!"
"She was delightful, monsieur." She pitched her voice even lower than usual. If her voice were any more raspy, Leplée would think her consumptive.
"Wherever did you find her?" Toddy asked with polite interest.
"Singing on the street corner, if you would believe! A voice like that, and the little angel was half-starved, unable to find work. Can you imagine?"
Quite, Victoria thought.
"Have you met my good friend, the Duke Boguslaw Zeromski?" Leplée introduced them.
Victoria summoned a cautious smile, and said nothing. She suppressed a sudden desire to knee the 'duke' in the groin and make a run for it.
"Have we met?" he asked hesitantly. "You seem familiar." The man distinctly looked as though he wanted to be standing anywhere but in their presence, rocking on the balls of his feet as if ready to bolt.
"I'm quite sure we would remember an eminence of such renown," Toddy answered smoothly on her behalf, gesturing at the man's medals. "Bogus-law? Such an interesting choice of name -- by your parents, I mean."
"It is pronounced bogu-slaw," the man corrected him. "It means God's glory. It is a good Polish name."
"A fitting name for an honest Christian," Toddy parried. "Were you in the army? You know, I saw an outfit as ornate as yours in the theater once. An opera, I believe. Leoncavallo's Pagliacci -- The Clowns. Have you seen it?"
Boguslaw shook his head meekly.
"I can't quite place your accent. Are you from the north of Poland? Northwest, perhaps? Far west?"
The man squirmed.
"What brings you to Paris?"
Leplée explained. "The Duke here is seeking my advice in the matter of some theater investments he has made in Kraków."
"Advice and capital, no doubt," Toddy replied.
"Ah, you must pardon me," the duke said. "I wanted a chance to speak with Monsieur Marchand about investment opportunities in America before he leaves." He slinked away, a glint of sweat on his brow.
Leplée watched as the other man scurried to the other side of the room.
"Strange man," Leplée observed. "But then nobility is often taken with strange nervous upsets, I understand. The inbreeding, it is not healthy." He blinked. "My pardon, Count Grazinski. I did not mean to offend."
Victoria wished the waiter was near; she could stand another glass of wine after all that. Her heart was still racing at the near-discovery; but at least she knew why her dear ex-husband didn't reveal her identity... he was too enmeshed in another of his own schemes.
"No offense taken, monsieur."
Leplée left Victoria and Toddy alone after a few more minutes of small talk.
"Now can we leave, Toddy?"
In the car on the way back to their hotel, Victoria leaned her head on Todd's shoulder in utter exhaustion. "What a nightmare!"
"Nonsense, my dear! Tonight, you performed superbly!"
Victoria choked down a laugh. "When? When I tried to convince King Marchand that you and I are a couple, or when I managed -- barely -- to stop myself from punching the lights out of my darling ex-husband? Who, by the way, would certainly have revealed my identity to Leplée if he wasn't too busy trying to con the man out of his fortune."
Toddy laughed. "Oh, Victoria, dear! Your ex-husband had no idea at all who you were!"
Victoria lifted her head and turned to Toddy. "What do you mean? Of course he recognized me. Didn't you see how nervous he was while he was talking to us? He was terrified that we'd reveal him for a fraud!"
Todd shook his head. "Ah, and there you are only half right! He was indeed afraid you would reveal him -- as not being Polish! While you were freshening up before we left, I cornered the good duke. He asked me what part of Poland you were from -- to be sure to claim that he was from somewhere quite distant, no doubt! He also asked how long we had been a couple, and -- rather cautiously -- whether we'd ever been to England. I assure you, he was not acting; he had no idea who you were, only that you looked vaguely familiar."
"But... we were married for two years!"
"Ah, but you were a woman then. The hair, the makeup, the clothes -- and the weight you no doubt lost over a season of near-starvation here in Paris, after the bastard abandoned you -- you are quite transformed!"
"But true! You need to have more confidence in your act... you are in no danger of being revealed."
"Except by King Marchand."
"Well, every rule has its exception, and King Marchand is truly an exceptional man."
She sighed. "I only wish that we dared reveal 'Duke Zeromski' to be as bogus as his name."
"Ah, well, as to that..."
"Toddy? What did you do?"
"Well... after I spoke with the Duke, I sought out Leplée's little sparrow, to congratulate her on her performance. I may have let slip that I had seen a man who looked quite like the Duke in a performance by the Bath Touring Light Opera Company -- which, I'd been told, had had a major financial crash recently when their manager and one of the actors scampered off together with the cashbox. Don't worry; Leplée is no fool. He'll do some digging before giving any money over to your dear husband."
"We'll check the papers tomorrow; I'll wager you not one, but two meatballs that he's arrested by the week's end."
"Toddy, you're wonderful."
"I just wish we could've done something about Richard for you while we were at it."
"Ah, Richard will get his come-uppance another day. He always turns up, like a bad penny. Usually when he is out of pennies, in fact."
Victoria hesitated. "Are you sorry I punched him? Back in your apartment, I mean? I rather ruined what you two had going."
"Ah, there will always be other men. Perhaps even men whose hearts pump blood instead of black bile."
"Not if everyone thinks that you and I are together, there won't be."
Toddy stroked her hair gently. "Ah, Victoria... I see I still have a long way to go to make a true Parisian out of you, if you think that would ever stop anyone!"