The Lovely Gaze Where Every Eye Doth Dwell
The first time Feuilly put on a skirt, he was nine years old. Babet had thrown a wadded garment at him and snarled, “Put that on. And look sweet.”
“A third of the take.”
“Half.” He had been with Babet almost as long as he could remember, and public work was usually negotiable.
“A third or nothing.”
Feuilly shrugged - it had been worth a try - and unfurled the wad of cloth. “What the hell?”
“Just put it on and don’t let anyone see your prick.”
He changed clothes in the corner of the café. The memory that remained was not of the colour of the dress, or Babet’s haranguing, but the way the fabric flowed delightfully across his bare legs and prick.
“Cover your chest. You’re supposed to be a girl, for god’s sake, show a little modesty.”
“A little what?” Feuilly was too enthralled in swishing his skirt to really care. It was vastly better than Babet’s previous attempts to dress him up for a scheme.
“Be sweet,” Babet threatened. “Sweet little girls get more money.”
So that was the scam - begging. Whatever, Feuilly thought. He had been asked to do worse before. Begging was easy, and always more profitable under Babet’s direction. A good afternoon’s work, in a swell costume, that was all.
He was not prepared for what happened next, however. “Ow! What the hell?”
“Get back here, you damned brat. Someone’s got to get your hair in order!” Babet had made an ineffectual attempt with a hairbrush. Luckily for Feuilly, Mireille walked in, and her broad hips made an efficient barricade.
“What on earth is going on? The boy in a dress? What the hell are you up to?”
“Trying to brush his hair, the lousy little twerp.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my hair!” Feuilly claimed.
“That’s not going to do any good.” Mireille took a broken comb out of her pocket. “Come here, my dear. This won’t hurt if you can stand still.”
Indeed, Mireille was gentle, though Babet started pacing impatiently over the amount of time it took for her to get the tangles out of Feuilly’s long, matted curls. “Look, you want in?” he finally asked.
“Do that on the street, I’ll give you half.”
“Half is more than you’re giving me!” Feuilly complained.
“Half my share. Come on, think about it. Mother and daughter, striving to respectability, can’t afford a bite of bread but they’ve still got some pride.”
“So that’s what this is. A stakeout masked by begging.”
“What the hell else would I be doing with the boy in a dress?”
“I can think of plenty.” Feuilly idly wondered what Mireille meant by “plenty”, but he never bothered to ask.
“Are you in or out?”
Feuilly had no idea what Mireille was doing to his hair, but she helped him arrange his dress nicely. And whatever she did, it worked. Babet would send gentlemen their way, and Feuilly would dance about in the dust and look as sweet as ever he could be, and tell the gentlemen that Mireille was his mother, and she was ill, and please, could they help? The take was better than whenever he went out alone, and Mireille even gave him part of her share. But Babet took the dress away in the end and only ever brought it out twice more. Those three times were Feuilly’s best memories of childhood, particularly as he had once managed to get a glimpse of himself in a shop window and thought Babet was right, he did look rather sweet with his long curls and the baggy dress.
The fourth time he put on a dress was supposed to be a lark. One of the boys in the workshop had a sister who had just been left by her man. It was thought that the best way to make an ass of him was to send him one of the he-shes who sometimes walked the Tuileries, but they had no funds. They did have two girls who would loan a best dress and bonnet to the plan, but someone had to wear them. Four young men and three girls crowded around a café table, arguing over who was most suited.
It was Sylvie who confiscated Feuilly’s hair ribbon. “Come on, let’s see what it all really looks like.”
It was embarrassing to let his hair down in full company, especially when Fanny turned him towards her and started arranging it. He enjoyed the girls playing with his hair, but it was not really an activity for a café evening. And it was even more embarrassing that their crowd grew silent and stared at what he assumed was Fanny’s handiwork.
Anne-Marie, the jilted one, nodded. “Yes. It’ll have to be you. There’s no other choice. The whiskers will have to go, and we ought to pluck your eyebrows. Who’s closest to your size? Sylvie or Fanny?”
Everyone was still staring, but so long as Anne-Marie wanted her revenge, Feuilly could not withdraw from the plot. His reputation might take a beating from how well or ill performed the masquerade turned out to be, but with his experience, he could move on more easily than poor Anne-Marie and her growing stomach, or that utter cad Renaud Caret who had got her into that state. And the asked-for sacrifice was truly minimal so long as he did not seem too eager to put on Fanny’s best dress. The whiskers were no sacrifice at all, being a concession to masculinity that he had never been entirely certain looked right anyway.
Saturday night came soon enough, with a visit to the barber for a shave and then to Fanny’s room, where she would serve as hairdresser and maid. Feuilly said nothing in his nervousness; she was voluble in hers. She ripped out what felt like half his eyebrows and forced him to strip down so he could put on petticoats and she could see how much attention would have to be paid to his body. He had never had the full efflorescence of body hair that would have marked him as truly masculine, so Fanny managed well enough only with her tweezers across his back and shoulders. A razor would not have taken so long or caused so many tiny dots of pain.
Only then was he permitted to try on the dress, a beautiful lavender gown with a full foot of embroidered trim on the skirt, the shoulders completely exposed with the merest hint of puffed sleeve over the arm. “I always meant to recut that neckline and never did. Thank goodness for small favours, at any rate,” Fanny said as she stuffed a couple of stockings into the bodice to make up for his lack of breasts. Fanny had lovely breasts and should have been sporting a gown that emphasised her décolletage, but anyone lucky enough to get society hand-me-downs was hardly in a position to complain when such a beautiful gown came from a girl who had not had Fanny’s natural graces. The neck line was low enough to be suitable for evening but high enough to admit for stockings rather than breasts, and only a small strip of his chest had to be quickly shaved to accommodate it. She finished off the ensemble with a ribbon tied around his neck to mask the adam’s apple as best she could.
Once he was dressed, Fanny turned her attention to his hair. She started in silence, but soon enough the complaints came out again, and every time he tried to turn to look in her small mirror, she firmly put his head back at the angle in which she preferred to work. “Why can’t your hair be longer and less thick?” she complained as she fought with his back hair, having already portioned out curls for the sides. He said nothing. The fact was that they were lucky have him at all and not someone who would have to hide under a bonnet. Fanny kept poking at his scalp with a frightening number of hairpins, muttering all the time about how to hold it all in place when it wasn’t quite long enough to gather at the crown. Nevertheless, she at last was satisfied enough to pull out her powder box and give his face and neck a thorough dusting, followed by an application of rouge that might well have involved painting an entirely new face, it took so long. All Feuilly could tell was that she kept frowning over her handiwork, and even when she set aside all her pots and poufs, she did not look satisfied.
“Well, there you are,” she finally said. “I’m as much an artist as you, if I say so myself.”
He was finally permitted to look in the mirror, and that permission made him terribly scared. What had she managed to do? Was it all going to be for naught? The scheme would never work if he still looked boyish. And the powder and paint made his skin feel dry and tight, as if he had been transformed into a mask that might crack at any movement. The hairpins digging into his scalp gave him no confidence, either, as if his thick curls would soon burst their bounds and leave him looking disordered and out of place. Only the deliciously heavy silk dress was at all comfortable. But he finally dared to look and ended up quickly looking back to Fanny in shock. She stood there staring at him, looking rather glum, her chin in her hand, as if she had failed when she had, in fact, produced a masterpiece. He looked back in the mirror. He was himself, yet not at all himself. The long struggle with powder and rouge had been to soften some of the lines of his face without leaving it looking mask-like at all. His eyebrows were beautifully thinned into a perfect arch. She had managed to pin his too-long sidelocks so that they framed his face but fell only to his ears, the length hidden in the rest of the mass of his hair. The effect was not entirely à la mode, but it was attractive in a feminine way. Yes, the shape of his nose and the line of his jaw were still the same, but in Fanny’s hands, he had become not only a girl, but a pretty one. Slowly and unconsciously, he began to smile.
“Smile with your lips closed,” she snapped. “Your mouth’s too wide otherwise.”
He pulled her close, delighting in the rustle of two sets of petticoats, and kissed her firmly on the lips in gratitude and elation. This effect was so far beyond any childish interest in skirts that he would gladly have done more than just kiss her.
She did manage to smile a little after disentangling herself from his arms. “Thank god, there is a man left in you. Let me dress myself, then we’ll go. You’ll have to learn to walk, and while I’ve got a shawl for you, no one had an extra fan.”
“That’s all right. I liberated one from the workshop.” He found it in his pocket and fumbled to snap it open.
Fanny giggled at his incompetence, and he grinned. “Lips closed, remember,” she reminded him.
“Oh, hell,” he complained.
“You’ll have to listen to one of us. Christ, I can’t look at you. It’s too wrong.” She turned away and started unbuttoning her dress. “Just let me get dressed, then we’ll go.” Throwing the evening dress she had borrowed from yet another friend over her head, she kept talking. “Control is all you need. Men don’t control themselves. You need to watch where you step, smile just a little, know exactly how low your shawl is dangling at all times. Control.”
Control, he reminded himself. Let on no pleasure but that which is permitted. Allow no one to see the difference between what is natural to you and what belongs in nature.
With a sigh and something of a jealous glare, as her borrowed dress fit her worse than her dress fit Feuilly, Fanny led him to the Montplaisir, the way being taken up with teaching him how to walk properly rather than to revel in every silken swish of the beautiful gown. Feuilly found it surprisingly easy to imitate Fanny, particularly in how her movements accentuated the rustle of the petticoats, but it was terribly hard to do it without concentrating on it exclusively.
They were behind their time, Fanny’s art having taken longer than planned, and everyone was waiting for them at the gate. “We’ve been waiting for ages! Where were you? Where is -” And jaws dropped as they realised Feuilly was the other girl. He spun around in a delightful swish of silk, then dropped a curtsy as Fanny had taught him, perfectly willing to admit at the moment that he was showing off. The dress felt exquisite, particularly in the heft of the skirt swirling around his legs and prick. Then he attempted to bid them good evening in a tone somewhat higher than his ordinary voice but not in an utterly fake falsetto.
“Jesus Christ, Fanny, what the hell did you do to him?” Picard asked.
“It wasn’t my idea in the first place,” Feuilly snapped in his natural voice, “and it wasn’t hers, either. One of us was going to do it. Upset it isn’t you?” He was rather glad he had been the one elected, but he could not help wanting to defend Fanny against insinuations that ought to belong to him alone.
Fanny, however, was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. “Turns out, if you dress a man up, he discovers manners. Who could have known?” she asked with a devastating sweetness.
“Let’s just find him and get this over with so no one has to figure out who you are,” François Ebrard, Anne-Marie’s brother, suggested to calm everyone down.
“Come along,” Anne-Marie said, taking Feuilly’s hand. “Giggling passel of girls.”
“And he’ll see me with you.”
“If we keep to the dimmer paths, keep our voices down, and show you off as much as possible, he’ll notice you, not us. You can’t be alone, otherwise you’ll get picked up for soliciting.”
Starting the evening with a prostitution arrest would not at all assist the plan, or Feuilly’s future, so he went along. It was rather amusing to be surrounded by girls and permitted all sorts of familiarities. Indeed, to be encouraged in familiarities, as girls constantly hung off one another, bowed their heads low to share secrets whispered with lips against ears, even to adjust one another’s hair and have Anne-Marie share some of the flowers in her hair with him. He wished he could see himself again, wondering what the little white flowers might look like against his darker hair.
At a pre-arranged signal, the girls left him and went off with their men, Anne-Marie temporarily being partnered by her brother. They would keep an eye on Feuilly from a distance and reappear only when the damage to Caret had been done. It was strange, and a bit frightening, being alone, walking along the lantern-lit path towards the bright dance floor, knowing that everyone would think him in the wrong for what he was doing, particularly if they knew he was starting to like not only the skirt and petticoats but also the way the slight breeze felt on his bare neck and shoulders and the scent of the flowers in his hair. It would be thoroughly delightful if only he were not in a place where one wrong step might lead to a fistfight.
The plan had been sound, however, based on Anne-Marie’s long knowledge of her lover, for Feuilly had not long to walk, head down, concentrating on looking forlorn as well as on how he walked, before Caret stepped in to play the gallant.
“Your friends have left you.”
“They have their men,” Feuilly sighed.
“Come, a pretty girl like you doesn’t have a man?”
Feuilly looked up through his lashes, trying to play at any gesture that had ever taken him toward a girl in a pleasure garden. “Not everyone is so lucky, monsieur.”
“Should you like a dance? I say we ought to wipe all their eyes, you and me on the dance floor.”
Feuilly smiled, remembering at the last moment that he must be controlled, to keep his lips closed and his expression soft. “I should like that very much.”
Caret offered his arm, and Feuilly took it lightly, hoping that if anything was noticed, it would be the length of his fingers rather than the possibly large size of his palms. He was grateful that he was, indeed, shorter than Caret, even if the dress was short enough it was showing off his ankles, though that was frequent enough at the Montplaisir. “What’s your name, my dear?” Caret asked him.
Feuilly had utterly forgotten to think of a name. No one had said he ought to have a name. What in hell was he going to call himself? “Lydie,” he replied, thinking mostly that he had to avoid saying Fanny’s name because she was well known to Caret. Well, it was a whorish thing he was doing, leading a man to his doom for the profit of another person.
“Lydie. Beautiful. I’m called Renaud.”
Luckily, the band came from Auvergne and played their local music for dancing. The Auvergnat dances were lately taking working class Paris by storm, but only the men of Auvergne could dance them with any felicity. They were ideally suited for the fast and drunk, with rapid movements but without the careful patterns of a quadrille or closeness of a waltz, so that to fail rather poorly was part of the charm. The better bands played on Sundays and sometimes on Mondays, and then one could dance properly, but Saturdays and Auvergnat bands were a delightful end to the working week. Feuilly could not lead terribly well in these dances, so it was somewhat easier to remember that he ought to follow. The movements were also rapid enough that conversation was more difficult, so that he had to say much less to Caret than if they had come the following evening. He did manage to point out Anne-Marie, who was dancing now with Trioux. “There is a lovely blonde girl staring at us.”
Caret looked, returned Anne-Marie’s glare with one of his own, and turned back to Feuilly. “She is no one. Possibly she is jealous of your beauty.”
If Feuilly could have blushed on cue, he would have at that moment. Unfortunately, he could only look down and pretend to be hiding a smile. “You flatter me, monsieur.”
“Only because you deserve it.”
Feuilly did manage to claim fatigue when the band started to make an attempt at a waltz. He was not so certain that the close form would not expose that his breasts were stockings, and he had no confidence that he could remember not to lead. He was rather sad about it, because he greatly enjoyed the feel of the skirt and rather wanted to experience how it would move in the sweep of the waltz, but it was better not to be caught. Caret even fetched him a glass of champagne, a sign that he was not yet done attempting to seduce “Lydie”.
Feuilly carefully unfolded his fan while Caret was gone, so that he was prepared to enact the overheated girl upon his return. He had to be careful with the fan, as it was painted only on one side and had to be returned on Monday so that it might be completed and sold. It was much easier to snap the fan closed when Caret returned than it had been to open it.
“Shall we walk out into the gardens? It will be cooler there,” Caret suggested, almost on cue.
Feuilly nodded his assent. He refrained from looking back to see if the others were following. It was time to trust that they were aware of the way in which the plan was moving forward. Indeed, he ran into Picard taking a piss into the bushes around the dance floor, and a nod and a grin from the man gave him confidence that they were not going to leave him to his own humiliation.
Caret tried to force him into conversation as they strolled further and further away from dance floor. Feuilly managed to reply that he was a seamstress, that he had come to Paris from Champagne, immediately cursing himself silently for coming up with no better locale than what he had just been drinking, that he liked the freedom of the city very much, indeed. He hoped that this last answer would be what Caret needed in order to attempt to take advantage of him, and he even suggested that they stop a moment so he might rest on a nearby bench.
To sit on a bench in the Montplaisir was as much as to suggest that the bench be used for something more exciting than merely resting tired feet. Indeed, Caret sat very close, so that they were thigh to thigh, and put one arm around Feuilly’s waist. Feuilly leaned in, as the keen girls did, and turned his face slightly towards Caret. He expected the kiss, he knew that the plan required the kiss, possibly many kisses and quite a lot more, but the actual kiss came as a surprise. Feuilly had never been kissed by a man, and it was odd and not at all right that a kiss be given by someone with thick lips, who had not shaved in two days, who pressed his case clumsily and with force. The kiss brought to mind everything that was wrong in the masquerade when so much was otherwise right. But Feuilly played along, wondering how many girls disliked such kisses yet continued because they did not know what else to do.
He accepted several more kisses, not only on the lips but on the neck and even a nibble at the ear that was accompanied by the grip of Caret’s other hand on his thigh, dangerously close to where his fingers might discover Feuilly’s prick. Feuilly feared he was sweating profusely from the danger, he hated the flick of Caret’s tongue at his neck, yet he stayed in place and permitted what was happening to happen. He wanted very much to turn and punch Caret in the jaw, yet the plan was that Caret had to make the discovery himself, that he had to know in his soul that he had brought the humiliation on himself through his deliberate pursuit of a girl who turned out not to be a girl. Anne-Marie was insistent on that score, and Anne-Marie had to be watching. While earlier, Feuilly had feared that the clothes and the situation might bring him to a state of sexual excitement, the actual attempt at sex was leaving him as limp as anything. Only the memory of how Caret had abandoned Anne-Marie, pregnant with his child, not a week before and was attempting to do the same to “Lydie” kept him locked to the bench.
That hand on his thigh started to migrate upward while Caret buried his face in Feuilly’s bare, lightly perfumed shoulder. In fear of what might now happen, Feuilly clutched at the edge of the bench, the only thing he could grab on to other than Caret’s hulking, sweaty body that any moment was about to discover that “Lydie” had a prick. But Caret moved his hand no closer, stopping just before he might note that fatal bit of flesh. He was taking his time, and Feuilly could not take the suspense.
Instead, he took the initiative. “Stopping so soon, Renaud? Surely you are burning as I must be,” he breathed as sweetly as possible. “Come,” he said more loudly, so that anyone lurking in the shadows nearby could hear, “you and I both know what you want.” He took Caret’s hand and placed it directly between his spread legs.
Caret pulled his hand away as if he had touched a hot stove. “What the fuck?”
Feuilly stood, in case he needed to run or fight. “Yes, fuck.” He started to hike his skirt. “Why not right here? Everyone else does.” Indeed, the shadows of any Paris pleasure garden were filled with copulating couples as the night progressed. For many, it was the most privacy they could muster in their lives of shared rooms and nosy boarding house keepers. But Feuilly turned his back and bowed his head. He would blow it all if he were too forward, and he must pretend to modesty, even if he had gathered his skirt and petticoats at the waist, showing off his prick to any passers by, should anyone happen along this particular path. “Please forgive me, monsieur. A girl, all alone in this city, sometimes I burn so hard for a man’s touch.”
Caret certainly burned hard for a woman’s touch, for he took Feuilly from behind, his erection poking at Feuilly’s buttocks. “Oh, Renaud, thank you,” Feuilly breathed as he grabbed Caret’s hand and thrust his prick through Caret’s fingers, not giving Caret enough time to grab him in horror or revenge.
Anne-Marie stumbled out of the darkness at that point. “This is what you leave me for?” Caret was frozen as he was caught with his arms around Feuilly. “Well, I suppose you can’t get him pregnant!” Ebrard was right behind her, and soon Picard and Fanny appeared with Trioux and Sylvie, though the latter couples stayed on the edge of the shadows, outlines more than identifiable figures until they spoke their rehearsed parts.
“What’s going on?” Trioux asked.
Feuilly had pulled away from Caret by that point, even if he was still flashing his prick at the cad. “Renaud Caret’s got himself a he-she!” Sylvie laughed. “No wonder you left Anne-Marie,” she sneered. “But François’ got a prick if that’s what you prefer!”
Caret attempted to punch Feuilly, but Feuilly had been waiting for the inevitable fight ever since he had taken Caret to the bench. He ducked and gave Caret a swift uppercut to the jaw, the heft of the bone reminding him that he had not been in a knockdown fight in far too long. He was never going to get his footing properly if he had to be careful of Fanny’s silk dress, but luckily, Ebrard and Trioux stepped in to chase off their victim.
Anne-Marie gave Feuilly a kiss on the cheek. “You were brilliant.”
“I was scared to fucking death.”
“Who can blame you?” Picard answered. “That was not something I ever want to watch again.”
“It’s not something I ever want to do again.” One lock of Feuilly’s hair had come loose at last in the agitation and was falling in his eye. He rather feared the entire disguise was going to turn out like that bit of hair, loose and pathetic now that the plot had succeeded.
Ebrard and Trioux came hurrying back. “We’d better get out of here before he finds a cop.”
Yet they walked back as a troupe and settled down in Fanny’s room, taking up the entire floor as well as the bed and her one chair, to drink champagne directly out of the bottle as a toast to their success, particularly their success in getting back to Fanny’s room without attracting undue attention from the police.
“Do you think he’ll figure it out?” Picard asked.
“He can’t have the police on my back,” Feuilly explained. “We didn’t do anything illegal. By this point, he’ll never be able to prove I was a prostitute, and I’m allowed to walk around in whatever ridiculous get up I want.” He was still wearing the dress, and the makeup, though the annoying hairpins had been removed at last.
“You did punch him,” Ebrard reminded him.
“Fair point. But can you imagine that police complaint? He’d have to admit to having been taken in by a bloke in a dress.”
Sylvie passed him the bottle. “You were much too brilliant for your own good. ’I burn for a man’s touch.’” She fell to giggling.
Feuilly took a long drink and passed the bottle to Fanny. “What if I said I burn for your touch?” he said seriously.
She grabbed the bottle. “I’d say wash your face, then we’ll see if I can look at you.”
The bottle made another round as he did, indeed, scrub the rouge and powder away. He desperately wanted to make love to a woman, not even to wash off the sting of having been pawed by Renaud Caret, but to listen to silk against silk, to feel delicate fingers across the shaved part of his chest, and yes, to have Fanny’s fingers entwined in his hair again. He was given the dregs of the bottle, the last drink before they would all have to separate for the evening.
“Will you all make it home?” Fanny asked her guests.
“We’re fine,” Ebrard said. “It’s Feuilly lives furthest out.”
She looked at Feuilly, still standing there in her dress but with his face scrubbed and his hair pushed behind his ears. “He’s staying the night.”
It was not silk on silk but cotton petticoats bunched together, the hem tickling his legs as he climbed across the bed to Fanny.
“You bastard,” she told him, “you looked better in a dress than I did.” He took her from behind, one hand on her delicious breasts as they expelled the sexual energy that had built up all night.
In the morning, he went home to his own tiny garret room. He stripped naked, wrapped a sheet around his waist, and shaved the rest of his chest, telling himself it was not a preparation for acquiring his own evening gown but merely a precaution towards permitting it all to grow back evenly.
On Monday, the boss looked at him funny, as did several of the other workers. “What happened?” the boss finally asked. It was impossible to hide his eyebrows, or the fact that he had shaved.
“Fancy dress party,” Feuilly lied. “Ebrard’s sister threw it.”
“All true, monsieur,” Ebrard answered when questioned.
“And what the hell were you supposed to be?”
“Marie Antoinette,” Feuilly answered sarcastically. Ebrard laughed, but it was rather obvious that the boss was not amused by this treatment of the king’s late sister-in-law. “Forgive me, it was a Greek benefit, and I was prevailed upon to act the Janissary. They are eunuchs, you know.”
“I didn’t know,” the boss said warily.
“It’s true. Fancy dress party. He was a Turk. I’ll bring the robe tomorrow if you want to see it,” Ebrard insisted.
Feuilly kept his position, but he felt it quite a close-run thing. There could be no more dressing up, not even looking longingly at Fanny’s dresses and petticoats when she permitted him into her bed again.
Yet still he found himself the following Sunday watching the boys pace the Tuileries gardens as they looked for custom. He even played to them a bit, pretending to sketch them but really sitting there watching, his loose hair shadowing the page, as he admired their dresses and the felicity with which they conducted their masquerade. Perhaps one day, he would figure out just how to be one of them.
Fiction ~ Chapter 2 ~ Home