Mata Hari's Last Dance, p.1Michelle Moran
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A very heartfelt thank-you to everyone who worked with me on this book. Sally Kim, Etinosa Agbonlahor, Dan Lazar, Susan Moldow, Brian Belfiglio, David Falk, Laura Flavin, Maria Whelan, and, most of all, Allison McCabe.
The divine attributes of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—creation, fecundity, destruction.
This is the dance I dance tonight.
The dance of destruction as it leads to creation.
MATA HARI, BEAUTIFUL DANCER, IS SHOT BY FRENCH AS SPY; WAS KAISER'S CLEVER AGENT
PARIS, FRANCE, OCT. 15—Mata Hari, the Dutch dancer, who two months ago was found guilty by a court martial on the charge of espionage, was shot at dawn this morning.
* * *
Mme. Mata Hari, long known in Europe as a woman of great attractiveness and with a romantic history, was, according to unofficial press dispatches, accused of conveying to the Germans the secret of the construction of the entente “tanks,” this resulting in the enemy rushing work on a special gas to combat their operations.
Posed as a Japanese Dancer.
Mata Hari, who got her name through posing for some years as a Japanese dancer, was famed in the music halls of Europe for her great beauty. One of her specialties was, after singing, to mingle with diners on the floor, pick out some attractive officer and engage him in conversation. These informal meetings frequently developed into acquaintances which were profitable to Mata Hari in the way of gaining military information which, it was afterward found, she sent to Germany.
Intimate with Many Officers.
Mme. Mata Hari was found to have been on intimate terms with many French and British officers who did not dream of the real nature of her work. She was said to have worn a gold dragon, the insignia of the British tank service, indicating that it had been given her by a tank officer from whom she may have learned the secret of the tanks which she communicated, far in advance of the appearance of the tanks in battle, to Germany.
Suspicion Fastened on Dancer.
It was apparent, as soon as the tanks were brought into use, that Germany had had advance knowledge concerning them. Suspicion was soon fastened on Mata Hari and she was closely questioned by French officials. Her explanations proving apparently satisfactory, she was allowed to remain at liberty and at once moved to England. As soon as she landed, however, she was placed under arrest and a formal charge of Espionage placed against her.
Maintains Complete Composure.
The beautiful dancer manifested complete composure throughout her investigation and subsequent trial, even after documents of the most damaging nature had been produced against her.
It was found that she had communicated to Germany many secrets other than that of the tanks and had been, in fact, one of the most dangerous of the Kaiser’s agents in France and England.
Tell Me Where You Learned to Dance
We don’t take a horse-drawn cab to his office. Edouard Clunet is a lawyer—he owns a car. He opens the door for me and I find a wilted rose on the black leather seat. I hold it up. “Recent lover?”
He takes the rose and tosses it out the window. I can imagine him acting as casual with the women he makes love to. “You’re young. Nineteen? Twenty?”
If he’s surprised by this he doesn’t show it. “Still, you haven’t seen much of the world.” He starts the car and we drive down the Boulevard de Clichy, past empty shops and seedy bars. Men stand in tight clusters along the sidewalks, smoking, talking, whistling at women.
“I was born in India,” I say. I’m about to elaborate when we jerk to a halt, narrowly avoiding an outraged pedestrian.
“Listen,” he says when we are driving again. “I don’t care how many men you sleep with or who you charm by describing fanciful holidays in Egypt, sipping champagne on a felucca in the Nile. If you can mesmerize a man by claiming you took high tea with Edward VII during the durbar to celebrate his succession to Emperor of India, fantastic. The bigger and more believable your lies, the better. That being said—with me, cut the act.”
We are driving downhill toward the nicer part of town, an area much more respectable than where he found me. He stops the car for another pedestrian and I look out the window, imagining myself in one of the boutiques. I’d wear black silk gloves and pearls around my neck at least three strands deep. I’d wear a hat with feathers.
“When I introduce you to my client, I’m responsible for how you behave. Understand?”
“Let me explain it clearly. I am going to present you to my client, M’greet.”
The car rolls past La Madeline. A month earlier I auditioned for them. I wore a wine-colored sarong while all the other hopefuls dressed in moth-eaten furs. I told the men who owned the theater that I had traveled from India to share the dance of my people with the citizens of Paris. I danced without music, imagining the sounds of a gamelan, the strum of a sitar and surmandal. I was exotic. Too exotic.
“Thank you. We’ll be in touch,” they said and rejected me.
“He is a very rich client and a very respected man. I will tell him that you are Indian, that you were born in India, and you are going to behave as if everything I say is true. I can make you famous. But you must follow my advice and never lie to me. Ever.”
After La Madeline’s rejection I went to L’Ete. A shack where the poor entertain the poor, everyone’s last stop before trying something desperate. At L’Ete the girls stank of alcohol and poverty. It was my last audition, and where I met Clunet. He watched me perform with his fingertips pressed over his lips. As I danced, I thought he looked out of place in such a rundown playhouse. His suit was immaculate. I tried to guess his age. Thirty-three, thirty-five? I focused on him rather than on the men who were judging me from behind a wooden table as I spread my arms like the mother goddess and moved my hips to the silent gamelan. But I was “too dark and too slow” for L’Ete. “Too,” one of the men at the table said, waving his hand to search for the right word, picking fruit from trees, “Eastern.” They wanted blonde girls; they didn’t want me.
Clunet sought me out immediately afterward.
The sun had begun to dip behind the Sacré-Coeur and I had braced myself against the side of the theater. If I couldn’t dance, I told myself, I could sing or play piano.
Clunet interrupted my thoughts, introduced himself, and said he had a client, a man who had built an expensive library dedicated to Asian art, and that this individual desired something spectacular for its opening.
“Why should he think that I’m spectacular? No one else does,” I said, stinging with the humiliation of failure.
“Because this is a man with class and taste. Someone who will appreciate your art.”
I catch my reflection in the car window now and smile. My art.
“What other languages do you speak?” Clunet asks.
“French, English, Dutch, Malay. I learned some Hindi,” I say, “but not enough to call myself fluent. I was taught German in school.”
“Well, mademoiselle—or are you madame?”
“Tell me where you learned to
“Java.” I paint the picture for him. Gamelan orchestras playing in the night. White orchids floating in private pools. Parties so lavish the queen of Holland might have attended. “There was a woman who danced at these affairs. Mahadevi.” I describe how she taught me to dance and I can see him struggling to decide whether or not I’m telling the truth. But he doesn’t say anything. He must believe me.
“Here we are.” He parks in a suburb I’ve never visited before, in front of a magnificent villa that soars five windows high. The magnolias lining the street are in bloom. We walk to the front steps and immediately a bellman opens the door, expecting us. The man ushers us inside, into a hall lined with paintings of stern-looking men. At the end, in a small circular room, a woman smiles at us.
“Mathilda.” Clunet tips his hat to her.
She blushes a little and fumbles with her papers. “Monsieur Clunet.” She looks in my direction, but Clunet doesn’t introduce me.
We climb the stairs toward Clunet’s office: two desks and half a dozen glass and mahogany bookcases. I know that he is watching me, waiting to see if I am impressed. I take a seat and keep my expression neutral.
“There are things I must tell you, M’greet, about my client, Monsieur Guimet. About this engagement and what it will mean for you—and me—if you succeed.” He sits behind his desk and folds his hands. They are perfectly manicured, like the rest of him. “I’m not an agent,” he says. “My field is international law. But my client has a very special request and it occurs to me that he might not be the only one interested in the Far East.”
“Are you changing professions, then?”
He laughs, and I feel foolish. Of course he isn’t—look at his office. The leather chairs, the Persian carpets.
“No. I’m pursuing something that may be interesting for a time. There’s a great deal of money to be had in this, M’greet. But first, Monsieur Guimet has to believe that you are truly exotic, the daughter of a temple dancer in India. So when my client asks what your name is, you are going to say—”
“Mata Hari.” I embellish, “My mother died giving birth to me in a temple.”
He nods, impressed. “Good. And your age?” He reaches behind his desk and takes out a box.
He opens the velvet top. “Eighteen.” Inside is an emerald in gold filigree. “One of many, acquired on trips to India,” he says. “There are pieces in my client’s home that he knows to be fakes; he keeps the originals here, with me.” He holds out the jewel and I touch the Far East, running my fingers over the lives of princesses forced into marriage, mothers who lost children, lovers who cried on their wedding day. History wrought in emerald and gold.
“Monsieur Guimet isn’t one of your Montmartre customers.” He closes the box and puts it back, turning the key in the cabinet door. “He is an industrialist, an intrepid traveler, and one of the richest men in Europe. When we meet him tonight, I want you dressed as you were at L’Ete. Wear your most elaborate sarong. Wear all of your jewels.”
“I don’t have any,” I tell him. Rudolph, my husband, was the last person to buy me anything expensive—and everything I owned that had value I sold in order to eat.
“No matter. I’ll loan you jewels to wear,” he says. There is a piece of paper on his desk. He pushes it toward me.
“What is this?”
I consider it carefully. “This is a partnership?”
“Yes. I found you, M’greet.”
“Then you’re my lawyer?”
“And your agent. As soon as you sign.”
* * *
That evening, in my apartment in Montmartre, I lay my best sarong on the cheap brown comforter that covers my bed. Red silk trimmed with embroidered leaves of gold. I trace a finger across the cloth and in the ripples of the fabric I can see my father sitting like a bronzed sentinel by the fire, his black hair tinged gold by the orange flames. I climb into his lap and rest my head against his shoulder. He’s staring out our parlor window at the canals. It’s snowing and the houses along the water have disappeared like painted women beneath white veils. “I hate snow,” I whisper into his beard. He smells of fresh wood and rain.
“Why? It wipes everything clean. Makes it fresh, new.”
We both look outside at the color of nothingness. “But white is plain,” I tell him.
“Plain can be nice. But you’re right. White is not your color, M’greet.”
I like it when my father reveals things about me. I bury my head in his neck. “What is my color?” I don’t have white-gold hair like my mother or Dutch-blue eyes like my brothers.
“Red.” My father pauses. “Because red is passion. It’s life.”
Passion, I think as I dress. I stand in front of the mirror in the color my father envisioned for me and I know my papa was right. I am striking; unusually tall for a woman and in the sun my skin bronzes to cinnamon. When I was a girl, my dark eyes and hair made people whisper that my mother had taken a Jewish lover. “An orchid among buttercups,” my father called me. Tonight, my dark hair is pulled back from my face. The deep red of my lips matches my sarong. I move my arms and my hips into different poses and the silk reflects the room’s light like water.
There’s a knock at the door and I am startled. I had planned to meet him outside my building. Yet here he is, early. I open the door and before I invite him inside, Edouard Clunet welcomes himself into my apartment. If he’s shocked by the silk scarves I’ve hung to cover the shabbiness of the walls or the aroma of the urine-scented halls that my incense can’t hide, his expression doesn’t betray him.
“Your costume is excellent,” he says. He produces a box and opens the lid. “I want you to wear these,” he says. I count six bangles—all gold—and a heavy necklace encrusted with rubies.
I catch his eye. “Are these—”
“Most certainly real. He’s the greatest collector of Asian art in the world. I can’t have you meet him wearing inauthentic jewels.”
I tease the bangles over my wrists and he clasps the rubies around my neck. We both look at me in the mirror; my image is regal.
“If you can charm him this evening, M’greet, your entire life will change.”
* * *
I imagined Guimet as old, thin, eccentric. But the man who stands in the finest parlor I’ve ever had the pleasure to be invited to is taller than Clunet, bearded, distinguished looking. In the light of the crystal chandeliers his hair is silvered, but beneath his tailored suit, his shoulders appear to be broad and strong.
“Émile Guimet, it is my privilege to acquaint you with Paris’s next sensation.” Clunet makes a sweeping gesture toward me. “May I introduce Mata Hari, the Star of the East.”
Guimet inspects me from head to toe, then we meet each other’s eyes. I know he is calculating the worth of my jewels, the quality of my sarong. “Please, have a seat.” He gestures to some silk-covered chairs. I sit slowly, crossing my legs so that the sarong rises along my thigh.
He nods for Clunet to take a seat, and then sits himself. “Edouard tells me you were born on the altar of Kanda Swany,” he says.
“It’s true,” I say softly, lilting my vowels. “My mother gave her life to the temple. She died on the very day I was born. The priests of Kanda Swany adopted me. My name means ‘Eye of the Dawn’ and from the earliest days of my life I was raised in the hall of the pagoda of Shiva, trained to follow in my mother’s footsteps through the holy rites of the dance.”
“Yet your accent—I do not recognize it. You do not sound like someone from India.”
I touch his arm. “I have lived all over the world and speak many languages,” I say, as if confiding a great secret. “My favorite tongue is French. Vous avez une belle maison,” I compliment him, then steer us on to another topic. “I have been told you are curious abou
“Tell me about Borobudur,” he says.
“What would you like to know?”
“The temple. Is it Buddhist or Hindu?”
He is hoping to trick me. “No one knows. The men who built the temple were followers of Buddha. If you journey clockwise through the five levels of the pyramid, you will witness the life story of Buddha unfold.” I hold my hands before me, as if weighing the weight of a pear against an apple. “Yet the inscriptions on the temple walls suggest Hinduism. There is mystery in the temple.” He looks at my hands. Perhaps they don’t look like the hands of a temple dancer. I quickly drop them to my lap.
“Tell me about the stupas,” he says.
“The bell-shaped stones in which meditating Buddhas sit in quiet bliss contemplating the world? They are part of the temple.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“Many times.” They are a piece of paradise overlooking Yogyakarta.
“How many are there?”
“Seventy-two, if you do not include the largest one in the middle.”
He rises abruptly and I look at Clunet. Have I said something wrong?
“Come,” Guimet says.
I exhale and Clunet and I share an uneasy glance. We follow him into an antechamber. The dark velvet curtains are drawn and the air is cool. In large glass cases illuminated books are displayed. He walks to one work in particular and stops. I recognize it immediately.
“The Kamasutra,” I say. A book of sex, and this particular volume contains explicit pictures. I move closer to Guimet and begin to read in Malay, the language my barbarian husband hated with such ignorant passion. I make certain to catch his eye each time I pronounce an evocative word.
After I fall silent, Guimet immediately asks, “Is this book truly held sacred in India?”
Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes