Leicester Square, 1860
There he was, the same man again, watching me as I walked to work. His formal frock coat he wore over an ill-fitting shirt, tucked into rumpled trousers, giving the appearance that he'd just been roused from bed. I assumed he was local by manner of his dress, perhaps not of great wealth, but respectable, except for his deplorable habit of staring. Perched on his head, he wore a too-small brown derby that looked as if it had seen better days. These things I noticed since I've been a milliner's apprentice in one of London's premier hat shops from a young age. It was my job to be acquainted with the most current chapeau styles.
I must admit, I was not at all accustomed to being the subject of a man's interest. It intrigued me, but I chose to ignore my admirer, as any respectable lady would do. He was a persistent fellow, however, and for three days, I passed him standing on the opposite side of the street, daring only to glance at him as I arrived for work at Tozier's hat shop. My overactive imagination, a fault of which I'm reminded often by my mother, soon had me pondering whether he was planning something sinister against my employer.
On the third day just before the noon hour, he entered the shop. I was preparing a hat for display, pretending not to notice the strange thudding in my heart. He hung near the front door for a time, perusing the lady's handkerchiefs and lace gloves, ever so slowly inching his way over to where I stood. Perhaps I had misjudged him and he was simply debating what to buy for his spouse or mistress. Mrs. Tozier kept a private list of the men who often needed a "little something" for the special
woman in their lives—most often not their wife. Discreet and professional, Mrs. Tozier would take their money, wrap their gift and offer them her smile.
"Pardon, mademoiselle," the mysterious man said in a smooth, baritone voice.
I looked up and met his startling blue-green eyes, clear as the sky and sparked by a mischievous curiosity that sent a shiver through me. His hair was a light brown, slicked behind his ears and dipping just to his collar. The firm line of his jaw, which looked as if it could use a barber's razor, was accentuated by a wicked dimple when he smiled. Perhaps I was mistaken and he was a foreigner? It might explain his hesitancy to approach me if he was unable to speak any English.
"Are you French, sir?" I enunciated my words clearly. He had an aristocratic air about him, a rather regal, pleasant face and, at closer look, he was quite handsome. Had he been dressed more appropriately, he might have passed as a baron or a duke.
"No, I am not French, mademoiselle."
Although I was relieved that I would not need to draw on my minimal skills in the French language, his admission raised a new bevy of questions. "Nor am I, sir. Why then, do you pretend to be something you are not?"
He took off his silly brown derby, and, with a sheepish grin, smoothed his palm over his locks in a vain effort to bring them under control. "My apologies for assuming you might speak French, working at a French hat shop."
"What brings you to our shop, Mr.—?" I waited for his name.
"Rodin. William Rodin. Perhaps you've heard the name?"
I studied him evenly and gave no reply.
He waved his hat. "Well, I am confident that one day you will." His smile would have charmed a snake. "Are you familiar with the world of art, by chance? It is possible you may have heard of my brother, the famous artist, Thomas Rodin." He fingered his derby as he spoke. I noted by the appearance of its tattered edge that if he, too, was in the business of art, it was not doing very well these days—at least not for him.
"No, Mr. Rodin. I am afraid I have not heard of either you or your brother. My time is quite full with my duties here in the shop." I turned the hat stand this way and that, as if studying the display. The truth was, I had but a few times actually engaged in conversation with a male since Mrs. Tozier allowed me to work out front. Certainly not one who seemed interested in my thoughts.
He brought his hand to the collar of his coat, taking on a dignified stance as he tossed me a wide smile.
"Then, dear woman, our meeting is your good fortune, for now you will be able to say, 'I knew Thomas Rodin personally while he was in the prime of his artistic greatness.'"
I dipped my head to hide my smile. I did not wish to offend his pride.
"Are you interested in a hat, Mr. Rodin?"
He placed his bowler on the counter and leaned close. I glanced around the shop and prayed that Mrs. Tozier would not appear. She was a robust woman, with a thick French accent. Not one to tangle with, her grandfather had immigrated to London to open this milliner's shop. I could not afford to lose my job over some strange man and his absurd interest in telling me about his famous
brother. I held up my hand politely. "Mr. Rodin, my apologies, but I do have work to do. If you are not looking to buy a hat, then I must excuse myself and return to my duties." I turned to leave, and he reached for my arm.
"Let me get right to the point."
"Just as soon as you remove your hand from my arm, sir," I said. However, I could not deny the pleasant warmth of his palm.
His mouth lifted at the corner, as if he knew his touch jarred me. Slowly, he removed his hand.
"I have come to offer you a proposition."
"Excuse me, sir? Perhaps you've forgotten just where you are. If you are here to seek companionship for the evening, the Ten Bells Pub is down the street. I'm sure you'll find what you seek there."
He looked at me in surprise. "No—I mean, of course not. I've come to offer you honest employment. You have the potential to become quite famous."
He liked to use that word with great frequency. "Famous, you say? As you
are famous, Mr. Rodin?"
His eyes narrowed, studying me before he resumed his amiable expression. "My fame is in knowing the genius of the brotherhood. I am a designer, not an artist in the true sense of the word. However, presently being between projects, I have offered my services to my brother."
"That is quite thoughtful of you, Mr. Rodin. Now if you'll excuse me."
"Wait, I beg you to listen. The artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are looking for new models to pose for them. They have a very specific type of woman in mind and you fit the criteria brilliantly."
"Criteria, for your 'brotherhood'?
Really?" I did not hide my skepticism.
"Indeed. You are what we would call a 'stunner.'"
The word made me sound like the type of woman one would pick up at the Cremorne on a Saturday evening. His eyes raked over me, unashamed.
I pulled a display between us and I busied myself with adjusting the feather on the band of the hat. He continued to stare. No man had ever seen me as a model before.
"Your hands are quite lovely," he said, leaning against the counter.
"Please, you'll smudge the finish. If Mrs. Tozier—"
At that moment, I heard a heavy clomp-clomp coming across the wood floor from the back room.
"There, now you've done it. If I lose my position—"
"I've just offered you another." He straightened and offered a pleasant smile.
"Miz Bridgeton, eez
there a problem? Are you able to assist the geentleman?"
Mrs. Tozier came to my side. She was two inches shorter than I was, but more than made up for her height with her stern demeanor.
I started to explain, but the tenacious Mr. Rodin interrupted me with a slight lift of his hand.
"Madame Tozier." He bowed, taking her hand, placing there a quick kiss. "Je suis un artiste de design et de poésie,"
he attempted in broken French.
Mrs. Tozier looked at him with a wary eye. She was quite capable of spotting a fake—whether a hat or an accent. She frowned at me, and then at the man. "You are a design artist and a poet. How nice. So, you've come to buy a hat, oui?"
she stated plainly, tugging her hand from his.
I bowed my head, pretending to be engaged in repositioning the ribbon on the hat in front of me. Mrs. Tozier had little patience for wasting time. And if one had no interest in purchasing a hat then, to her way of thinking, they were wasting her time.
He paused, clearing his throat. "Madame,
I would like to discuss the possibility of borrowing your fine clerk, Miss Bridgeton, to hire as an artist's model."
Mrs. Tozier's hand flew to her mouth and her expression changed to blatant anger. "Geet
out of my shop! You…you
should be ashamed of coming in here and harassing a young girl, so sweet and innocent. Out,"
she snapped, waving her arms, chasing him to the front door. "You will ruin her reputation! That is what you will do."
I looked down and realized Mr. Rodin had left his hat. Carefully, I tucked it behind the counter. I watched as Mrs. Tozier slammed the door, causing the bell to clatter wildly. With a huff, she pulled down the lace shades that kept out the afternoon sun. She faced me and shook her finger as she stamped back to me.
"Do not speak to such men, Helen. They will only beguile you. Use you like tissue paper and toss you away with as much ease."
I wondered how she knew of such men. "Merci,
Mrs. Tozier. He has been watching me for several days." Oddly, my heart beat with a fierce and dangerous thrill. In part from her tone, in part from remembering how Mr. Rodin had looked at me. "Do you think he will be back?""Non,
he won't if he knows what eez
good for him," she huffed, smoothing her hands down the front of her skirt as if ridding his scent from her hands.
I waited until she disappeared beyond the curtains to the back room before daring to hurry to the front window and peer out.
To my strange delight, he was there, leaning against the corner of the building across the street. He caught me looking at him and placed a finger to his brow in salute, stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets and strolled down the street.
Later that night at supper, I spoke to my family about the incident. My papa knew immediately with whom the young man was associated. His words echoed Mrs. Tozier's.
"Bad seeds, the lot of them. They condemn the teachings of the scholars at the Royal Academy, claiming they teach rubbish. Then they carouse the streets, preying on young girls to lure into their studios, promising who knows what and, once there, the poor things cannot defend themselves."
My sisters, fascinated by the conversation, turned their collective wide-eyed gaze to me, waiting for my response.
"But Papa." I carefully chose my words. It had taken a great deal of effort to convince him to let me apprentice at Tozier's, and I did not wish to jeopardize that small bit of freedom I had.
"Mr. Rodin did not appear to be a deceitful man." I popped a dumpling in my mouth, slowly raising my eyes to meet my father's.
"You heard me, Helen Marie. You are to stay away from that riffraff. No good will come of it, I tell you that. Concentrate on your duties and learn the trade. That is what making a real living is—it is not about slapping paint on a canvas and living hand to mouth."
With one last effort to keep the conversation alive, I glanced at my mama, seated across the table from me. Her expressionless face spoke to me in greater volume than if she'd opened her mouth. The conversation was over. It was not to be brought up again.
I was old enough to make my own decisions but, due to my meager wages, was forced to live with my family because I had no husband. My papa and mama were of the belief that a man was the breadwinner and the woman the keeper of the hearth and home. They did not understand that if I met the right man, I would gladly work hard beside him, just as Madame Tozier worked with her husband at the shop. But according to my parents' wishes, until some wealthy gent swept into the shop and asked for my hand in marriage, I was destined to become a spinster with a very good knowledge of making hats. Was this my only opportunity to start a life of my own? Was it a chance to get my poetry in front of another creative soul?
As I helped to clear away the supper dishes, my mother placed her hand on my cheek.
"You are a beautiful girl. You will find a good man, like your father. A man who is not afraid of hard work." She patted my cheek as if that would magically make all my cares disappear.
Later, in the sanctuary of my room, I placed Mr. Rodin's hat inside a round hatbox that I'd found stacked near the refuse bins outside the shop. I tied it with a brown ribbon and tucked it beneath my bed, hoping that I would be able to give it to him on my way to work tomorrow.
For a long time I stared at the pale moonlight on my ceiling, remembering the look in his eyes as he studied me. I imagined reaching out to touch his unshaven cheek, feeling his warm breath on my face as he drew near. Strange sensations made my body tingle. For the first time in my life, I saw myself as a grown woman instead of a child.
It was odd to see my shadow as I walked along the cobbled lane to work. Between the constant downpours and the stench from the river that hovered over the city like a hazy specter, the sun was a strange sight. Its warmth lifted my spirits, but the idea of seeing Mr. Rodin had improved my mood long before I set foot outdoors.
I turned the corner, scanning the block before me, disappointed when I saw only the familiar store managers putting out their wares.
"A fine day to you, miss."
I took a step back, taken by surprise at Mr. Rodin's sudden emergence from a closed storefront. "Are you always this forward when in pursuit of potential models, Mr. Rodin?" I squared my shoulders, making sure he thought I did not appreciate him accosting me in this manner. In truth, however, butterflies had taken flight inside me.