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Love and Diamonds

Chapter Text

There was a boy: a very strange, enchanted boy. He came from afar, from London, from a sheltered but poor family that encouraged him to do anything but the two things he longed most to do. This first thing was to write. They told him there was no money in it, there was no success, and that even if he was the best writer in the world, there would be no purpose in pursuing it further. He didn’t care about success, though, so he left and against his family’s wishes he promised to write, to tell a story about the other thing he longed to do most—he promised to write about falling in love. And he did do just that—he fell into a love so fanciful, so complex, it could do nothing but crumble to pieces. That was why his family had told him to stay away from love. They feared because of his carefree kindness that the pain would destroy him. But still, as his love crumbled, despite all of his heartbreak and agony, he wrote:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.

And who is it that can attract that kind of love? What sort of person is so deserving of such beautiful words being written in their name? Who had stolen the heart of our young writer?

A second boy: as strange as the first, only less enchanted. This boy did not come from afar—this boy was trapped in his circumstance, a creature of the underworld, a son of a whore, left on a riverbank to be swallowed by the rain. But instead, he was found by one Mistress Marie, who was the nurse of the Moulin Rouge.

The Moulin Rouge was a night club, a dance hall, and a place for men of high standings to buy beautiful lovers. The second boy, the trapped boy, was prized at the Moulin Rouge, for although he’d grown to the age of twenty three, he maintained a youthful look and a slight figure much unlike those of the other boys sold for pleasure. Some might think that because of his sexual prowess he was plain in his shows and in his dancing, that he was meant only for the bedroom, but this was not the case. The boy longed to be an actor—a real actor—and every day he practiced by pretending he cared about anything else, and by night he practiced by convincing men he was in love with them. This boy’s name was Daniel James Howell, and it was with Daniel that the writer Philip Michael Lester fell in love.

The following text is the story of Philip and his love. Take it as you will.

Chapter Text

I came to Paris in the summer of 1899 to escape my parents and write of all things beautiful. Upon arriving in the train station I went straight to the district of Montmartre, the center of the Bohemian Revolution, and bought a small apartment on the second floor of a white and blue building. The paint was chipping and the floors creaked, but I had very little money to my name and had to make due. I had hardly finished unpacking my luggage when loud noises began filtering from above.

There were rattles, and bangs, and something akin to a piano except more out of tune than I could have ever imagined. Next came the stomping and the shouting. I tried to ignore it—I tried to sit behind my type-writer and force the noise away—but as it pervaded my ears I became irritable, and my irritation was directed inwards. Why did I think I could write about love when I’d never been in love? I hit my hand against my desk. I was a fool!

Quite upset now, I threw back my chair and exited my room. Before I knew it I was upstairs, slamming my fist against the door of the apartment above mine, gritting my teeth and seething.

The man who opened the door seemed to be intoxicated, as he was swaying as he looked me over with a sort of listless gaze. “Hello,” he greeted in slow French, though he looked to be Spanish. “What can I do for you?” The noise behind him continued—there seemed to be a heated conversation going on, and the out-of-tune piano tinkled away without a thought of consideration.

I straightened and craned my neck so I could look down on him. “I don’t mean to be rude,” I said, suddenly aware of my presence, “but you lot are being a bit loud. Would you mind quieting it down a bit? I live just below you.”

The man laughed. “Your French is terrible,” he said in English, “and we’re trying to write a play, so we cannot quiet down.”

“What kind of play are you writing that you need to shout and stomp around like you are?”

Suddenly, a little person dressed as a nun shoved in beside the man. “It is most spectacular!” he announced, grabbing my arm and dragging me inside. “Spectacular, spectacular! Come see, my boy!”

Inside was a patchwork of machinery, all looking to be only semi-functional. Sparks flew from some kind of metal contraption on the ceiling as a balding man tinkered with a control switch. A woman, maybe in her mid-twenties, stood in the middle of the room, her arms crossed and her face sullen. She had black hair that was cut in a harsh bob, and it framed her face crudely.

“Claude,” she said to a man who was sitting at a piano, “that awful pounding is drowning out my words. Why not just have some decorative piano?”

Claude rolled his eyes. “Your words are outrageous. I don’t think a nun would say that about a hill.”

The little man pushed me forward into the fray. “That’s Audrey,” he said, pointing to the woman. “She’s our writer. I’m filling in for the nun. Andres,” he nodded to the Spanish man who had greeted me at the door, “is playing the young Swedish goat-herder who falls in love with the nun! It’s set in Switzerland!”

I smiled, not overly impressed, but still not wanting to be too rude since they had invited me inside, and the little man seemed kind enough. I was still irritable with all of the noise, though, and I figured I would ask Audrey if they could be quieter. She seemed like she might have been in charge.

“‘The hills tremble and shake like the thighs of heated summer’ is a passionate line, full of erotic imagery!” Audrey shrieked, and the decibel of her voice made me second guess my choice to speak to her in particular.

“She’s a nun, Audrey, not a prostitute,” Claude sighed, and he ran a few scales across the untuned piano. “Maybe something softer and more magical would fit better.”

The little man stepped towards Audrey. “How about ‘The hills speak truths which until now I’ve never known!’”

“No, no, Toulouse,” Audrey waved him off. “Get back in position. We’re going to run it again.”

I stood aside, watching everyone scramble about—Claude straightened behind the piano, Andres stepped up onto a ladder, the man tinkering with the metal contraption moved to a far corner, and the little man, Toulouse apparently, swept to the middle of the room.

They went through the scene unsteadily, and Claude’s piano did nothing to move it along. At the end I was fighting back a sour face. I was grateful to see, however, that Toulouse made no attempt to hide his negative expression.

“That is truly something awful,” he said. “I feel sick with the lack of love in those words.”

I perked up, then. A lack of love was something I was quite familiar with.

“Perhaps you could try ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music,’” I suggested.

Everyone turned to look at me. Audrey looked incredulous. “And who are you?” she asked.

“My name is Philip,” I smiled.

“‘The hills are alive with the sound of music,’” Toulouse repeated. “My dear boy, I think you have something there! I swear the room began to glow as you spoke. Go on—tell us more!”

I swallowed and tried to ignore Audrey’s increasingly obvious bitterness. “‘The hills are alive with the sound of music… with songs they have sung for a thousand years?’”

It came out as sort of a question, not as strong as I would have liked—improvisation wasn’t my best suit—but the way the room lit up afterwards made me grin helplessly.

“That is beautiful! There was love in the very air around us!” Toulouse cried, throwing his arms up. He ran forward and hugged me around my waist.

Andres and Claude tried it out with the piano, then, singing it in time, and Toulouse hugged me tighter. “It fits perfectly!” he said. He turned to Audrey, his excitement very tangible. “You two should write the show together!”

“Write the show together?” Audrey laughed. “Why not just let him do it! You never care for any of my words, Toulouse!”

Toulouse looked sheepish then. “I love what you do, Audrey. You know that! But we’re looking for a truly Bohemian show, and sometimes your work is a bit dated in that respect. Philip could help you with that!”

“Oh, right, right!” Audrey stomped around me to the door. “If Philip is so wonderful, he can just write the show himself. I guess I’m not Bohemian enough for all of you!”

And with that, she was gone, and the room was silent for a moment after the door slammed. I had to hold back laughter at the silliness of it all.

Toulouse didn’t waste much time. “Philip! It looks like you’ve got the job!”

Claude shook his head. “Charles will never agree, Toulouse. We can’t just swing a new writer at him out of the blue.”

“Who’s Charles?” I asked, but no one paid me any attention. They gathered at one side of the room and left me at the other, and I couldn’t hear their suddenly quiet chatter. I got the suspicion they were planning something, which was outrageous because I hadn’t even agreed to write the play yet.

“We’ve got it,” Toulouse eventually said, turning back to me with a sideways grin. “If you can convince Charles’ Sparkling Diamond of your talent, he’ll surely insist to Charles that you write the show! I bet I could get you in with him tonight, if only we pretend you are a famous English writer.”

“Famous?” I asked, and then, “Sparkling Diamond?”

“Yes, yes,” Andres waved his hand at me. “Charles’ favorite of the Diamond Dogs. You must know of them.”

“Diamond Dogs,” I gaped, “as in, the Diamond Dogs of the Moulin Rouge?” I’d heard tell of the Diamond Dogs many times, even from far off in London. They were supposed to be a rambunctious bunch of prostitutes and dancers alike, tantalizing and lusty and not like anything I’d experienced before.

Toulouse was still smiling. “Never mind all of that! Andres, get Philip your best suit. Philip, prepare some poetry to recite tonight. I will go to Monsieur Howell.”

“Howell?”

“The Sparkling Diamond!” Toulouse exclaimed, gesticulating wildly as he ran from the room.

The rest of us were remotely stunned, but the others quickly got to scrambling about. Andres moved to a wardrobe shoved behind the ladder and started looking through the clothes.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, and I took off after Toulouse. He hadn’t yet made it down the first flight of stairs. “Toulouse,” I called, and he stopped to look up at me.

“Philip!” he cried. “I’m so excited! With you on board the Bohemian Revolution may very well take off!”

“I’m a poet,” I interjected quickly. “I’ve never written anything like this before. I don’t think I can write the show.”

Toulouse looked startled. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Do you believe in truth?”

“Truth?” I frowned. “Of course I believe in truth.”

“Beauty?”

“More than most things,” I said.

“Freedom?”

“I only long for it with every fiber of my being.”

“How about love?”

I swallowed. How could I verbalize my whole-hearted belief in love? Love was like oxygen, but an oxygen I’d yet to inhale. I lived it and dreamed it but was deprived of it, and yet had no idea how to put it into words. Love was a many splendid thing which I had no privilege of understanding. I belonged to love but love did not belong to me, so I had yet to be lifted to my true place as a romantic, as a writer, as a Bohemian.

“I can’t,” I said quietly. “I’ve never been in love.”

Toulouse shook his head. “That’s not important. What’s important is if you believe in it.”

“I do. I really, really, do.”

“See? You can’t fool me, Philip,” Toulouse put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re the voice of the revolution, I know you are. Spectacular, Spectacular will be all the better with you writing it.”

“Oh, that’s the name of the play, then?”

“Yes,” Toulouse’s smile, which was quickly becoming familiar and comforting, began to reappear. “Have faith in yourself, Philip. I will talk to Monsieur Howell—all you need to do is prepare some poetry to impress him with. We’ll go forward from there.”

“I’m nervous,” I admitted, running my hand through my hair.

“Don’t be,” Toulouse started heading down the stairs again. “Monsieur Howell would be a fool not to see something special in you.”

As Toulouse disappeared from my sight, I took a deep breath. Not even a few days after moving to Paris, I’d found a job—at the Moulin Rouge, no less. I wondered if I could fall in love with a can-can dancer, and then I decided I most definitely would have to if I wanted to write a truly Bohemian play. And so with no further pretenses, I went back up the stairs, my heart set on loving someone that very night.

Chapter Text

I was caught up in staring over the balcony. The view wasn’t monumental but the air was cool, not stuffy like inside the den. It looked over the Jardin de Paris Elephant, the courtyard behind the Moulin Rouge, and I ignored the trees and flowers and café to instead look at the extravagant elephant house and the castle facade against the far wall. At the base of the castle there were stacked boards and wire fencing: remnants of the roller coaster from the World Fair years ago. I hadn’t been allowed on the roller coaster, much to my dismay. Charles had told me I had an image to uphold, and that the roller coaster was meant for people who had paid their dues.

I remember being distraught at that comment, thinking it at the time a low-blow, but now it makes absolute sense. Back then I was only thirteen and very immature—I hadn’t yet come to realize my role at the Moulin Rouge. To be fair, Charles and Mistress Marie had sheltered me quite a bit (or at least as much as they could, raising a child at a place like that). When Charles had told me I couldn’t ride the roller coaster, it had felt like he was putting me in my place, like I was no longer a child, and like it was time to start earning my keep. I suppose that was true, as only a few months later I had my first act and shortly after my first paying customer.

“Daniel,” Mistress Marie called to me from inside. I turned to look at her. She was a stout woman with a strict face, but her voice was soft and I knew she cared about me. “We must start preparing you for tonight. I want to get you into the bath so you’re extra glossy when the Duke arrives.”

I nodded. “Of course, Mistress. Will he be attending the show before our meeting tonight?”

“Charles believes so, yes. Come along, now.”

I took one last look at the castle and the elephant and then went into the darkness of the den. Various other dancers and prostitutes hovered about, some lounging across the cots or sofas and others murmuring to each other while they stretched. A few stared at me as I went by.

“I’ve already drawn the bath,” Mistress Marie said, and she led me to the kitchens where the basin was set. “Out, out,” she ordered the cooks away. “Strip down, dearest.”

I did as I was told, laying my clothes across a chair nearby, and stepped into the tub. The hot water felt lovely, although the steam it produced made the room feel a bit claustrophobic. I had barely sat down when Mistress Marie began scrubbing at my chest with a rag. “Lean forward,” she demanded, and then she washed my back as well.

“Now, now,” she chided. “What is all of this?”

“All of what, Mistress?”

She prodded at my lower back and spine. “You have bruises, dear boy. Mighty welts. Who did this to you?”

I groaned. “Must have been that chap from a few days ago. He was a bit rough with me.”

“That just won’t do,” she said. “Why didn’t you say something earlier? You know we charge extra when there’s damage.”

“Of course I know, Mistress,” I said. “I just didn’t realize he was leaving marks. It wasn’t so bad in the moment.”

She sighed. “Poor dear. Here, scrub down your thighs and your cock. I’ll do your feet and ankles. You’ll have to keep your corset on tonight to appear fresh for the Duke.”

After I’d finished bathing, Mistress Marie took me to the dressing room and left me to dry off while she gathered my costumes.

“This one for the start of your act,” she said, throwing clothes across my wardrobe. “It was missing a button so I sewed a new one on. It should be just fine now. I’ll leave this one with Charles, as per usual, for you to change into during the set. Now, this one…” she tossed another piece in front of me. It was black and looked to have some combination of a corset and lace. “This one is for your night with the Duke. I’m told he appreciates a sort of feminine, sultry style. Take that as you will.”

“Smoldering temptress?” I asked with a slight smile.

“Yes, yes,” she said, “that.”

“Very well. Help me into the first outfit?”

“Certainly, dear.”

I had just finished changing and was applying makeup when there was a knock on the door. Mistress Marie opened it to reveal the artist Toulouse.

“Monsieur Howell,” he greeted, stepping inside. He gave a short bow to both me and Mistress Marie. “I came by to propose a private meeting tonight with—”

Just then, Charles pushed through the still-open door with a big grin.

“My beautiful butterfly!” he interrupted, shoving by Toulouse on his way to me. “I trust you’re all ready in confidence for tonight?”

“Of course, Charles!” I returned his smile. “One moment, though—Toulouse?” I said, “indeed, a private meeting tonight. It’s all ready.”

“All ready, sir?” Toulouse looked surprised.

“Well, it will be when it comes time. We’ll be meeting in the elephant. No worries whatsoever, it seems.”

“Wonderful!” he clapped his hands together. “I’ll let everyone know! Prepare for the Bohemian Revolution!”

“Right,” I said, and as Toulouse very nearly skipped out, Charles grabbed my shoulders.

“Now, let me get a good look at you.”

I spun around for him, showing off my skimpy, sequined suit. “Do you think the Duke will like it?”

“Oh, my, my,” Charles said, “he’d be right incompetent not to!”

“So you think he’ll invest?” I asked.

“I spoke to him earlier on the telephone and he seemed very keen on it. With a little bit of pressure from you, I’m almost certain he will!”

“Charles, this is wonderful!” I said, turning to the mirror to fidget with my hair. A few insolent curls kept sticking up above my ears, and I tried to twist them down. “With the Duke’s help the Moulin Rouge will be everything you’ve dreamed of.”

“A real theatre,” he mused, “with a real production! And you will be…?”

I looked into my eyes, and a light feeling fluttered in my chest like a delicate bird stretching its wings. “A real actor,” I said.

“Precisely,” Charles nodded. “Marie, see to it that Daniel is as gorgeous as ever tonight, will you? We must pull out all the stops.”

“Obviously, Monsieur. I’m already on it.”

“Very well. See you tonight, duckling.” He tucked a bit of hair behind my ear with a fond smile before he left us to continue our preparations.

“Mistress,” I said as Mistress Marie began preparing my eye makeup, “Do you really think I could be an actor?”

“A great actor, I’m sure,” she said. “Like Lockroy or Christian.”

I gasped. “You really believe I could be like the great Christian?”

“Without a doubt.”

For just a moment, I imagined myself on a stage, fully immersed in my role, and I imagined the audience sweeping me away afterwards to a different world—a world of fame and freedom, to a world where I would be loved for who I am and what I can do and not for simply how I look. A beautiful world that was honest, a world outside of the Moulin Rouge, where I would no longer be just a son of a whore and a whore myself, but a star, bright and burning even beyond the day of my death.