Whip Smart: Lola Montez and the Poisoned Nom de Plume
“Why don’t the two of you have a contest?” one of the wags said, proud of himself for such an audacious suggestion, and looking around at his chums like a large water spaniel that’s just dropped a duck at its master’s feet.
Oh, my, this wasn’t what I’d expected — I’d simply wanted to come, be alone, and blast several dozen bullets at something inert that, in my mind’s eye, had acquired an unnecessary monocle and a high, giggly laugh. The other sportsmen, however, were very excited by this new idea and clapped Beauvallon (whose dark face began looking decidedly stormy) on the back several times.
“I will not fight a woman,” he said finally, “and that’s an end to it.”
“I will fight you, if you like,” I rejoined, before I even knew that the words were forming. The others hurrahed, and one of them dashed off to find a fresh target.
“This is absurd, gentlemen,” growled Beauvallon, before turning to me. “Forgive them their crassness, mademoiselle. I am the best shot in Paris, everyone knows this. They are simply setting you up for laughter later.”
“Is that so?” I wondered whether this might be true — and perhaps they’d all been there the night before, at the Opéra? Perhaps, too, they’d all read and snickered at the reviews that cut me to ribbons, that insulted my very soul. I tossed my hair away from my shoulders, then straightened them. “Let us put it to the test.”
“I can’t advise it,” said another man, stepping up. “Do you remember me, Mademoiselle Lola? At the Jockey Club that night? We spoke for a little bit — you were with Eugène Sue.”
“Of course,” I said, recalling that the red lips and the mustache belonged to the Italian, Pier-Angelo.
“Fiorentino,” he nodded, with a shy smile. “I enjoyed your performance last night. Never mind what they say, it’s just to sell papers.”
My brain fizzed suddenly. He meant well, I’m sure, but I could feel it coming, that rising surge that occasionally overtakes me. I never know when it will happen. It’s been the same ever since I was a little girl. A surfeit of restlessness? — a lack of familial care or reprimand when young? I have no idea. I fight against it, but most often to no avail. It is an uncontrollable phenomenon borne out of a concatenation of conflicting emotions: a volcanic eruption of molten fire, and I must follow where it leads me or I will burst. I bent my head and reloaded, swiftly. To my left, I could feel Beauvallon’s indignation mounting. Bueno.
Ready, I raised my head and my arm. “I like a challenge. Do you?”
And I fired into the target, just as the weedy sportsman who’d retrieved the new one was setting it in place. The bullet went true, straight to a bull’s-eye; the man leaped to safety, tumbling as he went.
“Parbleu,” Beauvallon muttered under his breath. I looked over in time to see him reload at speed, aim and fire again. The weedy fellow stood up, dusting off his knees, and raised his hands in the air.
“Shall I check, Beauvallon? For God’s sake, don’t either of you shoot me.” He loped across to the target, peered at the centre, then turned and cried, “Yours followed hers! No second hole!”
Incredulous whistles and murmurs from all the others, who raced over to examine the thing for themselves. Beauvallon gave me a smile from his very brown face; his teeth sparkled white, his tongue very red, where I could see the tip of it sticking out between those teeth. “Satisfied?”
“Not quite,” I answered, then called, “A fresh one, if you please.” The weedy chap and another dashed around, searching. I could see someone else joining us at this point; it was Grisier, the master marksman and instructor, the one who’d given the nod to my membership.
“What’s this then, Beauvallon? Is the lady giving you a run for the money?” And then there were new hoots and hollers, as everyone else realized they could be betting on this, and the wagers began flying around the room at top speed.
“A change of pistols, I think,” Beauvallon said.
“Do you agree?” Grisier asked me.
“I shall bring two,” Grisier promised, “and they shall be fine ones. Duelling pistols.”
This gave me pause. I hadn’t often handled large ones such as those the duellists used, and didn’t think this fresh test was terribly fair. I hadn’t counted on the gentlemanly nature of Master Grisier, however. He did indeed bring duelling pistols, but they were smaller and lighter than I’d expected. “Choose the one you want, Mademoiselle Montez,” as he held them out for me, in their case. I indicated the one on the left. “I shall load the two, and you shall see me do so,” Grisier told us. “Of course,” he added with a twinkle in his eye and a glance at us both, “you are firing at the target, not at each other.”
During the loading, Beauvallon and I regarded one another. Beneath the dark colour of his skin, I could sense that he was blushing — with anger, I assumed. No matter. I squared my shoulders again; everyone was watching me with great attention, and I drank that in. They didn’t believe I could do this and were wishing me well — but I believed I could, and then they’d see. Grisier handed me the pistol I’d chosen, and gave the second one to my opponent.
Then I said, “Monsieur Beauvallon goes first, if you please.”
Absolute silence, absolute shock!
Fast as a striking snake, his arm shot out and the target was despoiled.
“Bull’s-eye!” the weedy one chirped with glee.
I raised my arm, took aim. Beside me, Beauvallon cleared his throat loudly. I dropped my arm, glared at him coldly. “Do you mind?”
“Yes, I do.” Very softly, under his breath.
I took aim swiftly then, and shot. Weedy one dashed forth and peered, searching in and around the centre, then — unbelievably! The cheek of him! — his head dipped and darted, checking the outer rings, and finally the sawdust-covered floor and paneled walls. Some of the others began to titter and mutter behind their hands. Fiorentino called, “What are you doing, man?”
“I’m just making absolutely certain,” El Weedo reported, then turned to face us with face ablaze. “That shot followed Beauvallon’s, as well. The lady aced Beauvallon’s bull’s-eye, if you can credit it!”
Men rushed in from all directions, and I found myself lifted into the air and galloped around the shooting gallery upon their shoulders, Fiorentino following and yelling at me, “Never fear, all of Paris shall soon hear of this! I’ll sell the story to the highest bidder, and make us all happy!”
By the time the jolly sportsmen had set me down, apologizing and patting my crumpled skirts, my chestnut-haired opponent had vanished.