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A Gift of the Gods by Gordon Knight

© Gordon Knight

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By the age of 21, Eddie Frowd had already killed 57 men. But he was still a virgin. That probably accounted for his instant and overwhelming fascination with the lady’s corset. In fairness, it was no ordinary corset and its owner no ordinary lady.

It was a wet afternoon in May 1915 when curiosity tempted him into the foyer of the London Coliseum. Eddie had seen the lady’s name before on posters outside a Flanders brothel, where he had stood, nervously sucking on a Woodbine, while his mates from the Hampshire Regiment disported themselves inside. Now there it was again, on a theatre bill. But, as he stepped inside, it was the contents of the display case in the foyer that were to ignite a burning obsession with Mlle Polaire.

There, resplendent under glass, was a pinnacle of the corsetiere’s art. Made from rich crimson brocade, its sensuous swirls of colour only served to emphasize its most remarkable feature. Eddie used the sleeve of his battledress to wipe the condensation from his breath off the glass. The caption read:


A GIFT OF THE GODS

Irrefutable proof of the miracle of nature that is Mlle Pauline Polaire - doyenne of the Paris music hall and celebrated star of the silver screen. Witness for yourself the wonders of her 14 inch waist all this week only at the London Coliseum. Tickets available now at the Box Office.


Eddie sidled round the cabinet, enthralled by its contents and the fantasies they excited. He imagined himself slowly untying those crimson laces, his hands trembling as he explored the sanctuary within. He was beginning to attract stares from other people in the foyer. The commissionaire was glaring suspiciously at him over his gold epaulette. That look reminded him of his regimental sergeant-major’s and was enough to quell the growing bulge in Eddie’s battledress trousers.

‘Impressive, huh?’

The voice was deep and slightly accented - American perhaps. Eddie turned to see a tall man, florid and extravagantly moustached, standing behind him. His sober morning suit clashed with a gold paisley waistcoat and scarlet cravat. Give him a top hat and cane, thought Eddie, and he might have stepped straight off a variety stage.

‘That lady - Polaire - boasts the smallest waist in the world,’ the man continued. ‘When she started in music hall, it could fit into a man’s collar. They even made a song about her in Paris.’

He sang a few lines in French with an excruciatingly bad accent. When he had finished he offered Eddie his hand.

‘William Hammerstein. Publicity agent to Mlle Polaire.’

‘Eddie Frowd.’

He winced at the pressure on his painful trigger finger. Hammerstein glanced at the insignia on his battledress.

‘So you’re one of our gallant war heroes? Just back from the front?’

‘No. J- Just off again. F- Flanders. R- Rejoin the regiment.’ Eddie cursed inwardly. Strangers always brought out the worst in his stammer. He was sure he’d get bayonetted one day before he could spit out ‘H- H- Halt! Wh- Wh- Who goes there?’

Hammerstein surveyed him quickly, looking for signs of injury. Eddie was getting used to that look in strangers’ eyes, the unspoken question why he was safe in England while others’ husbands, sons and brothers were dying by the thousand in the Flanders mud.

‘You kill lots of Germans?’ asked Hammerstein, eyebrows arched in anticipation.

‘A f- few,’ Eddie shrugged, ‘fifty-seven at the last count.’

'Holy cow!’ exclaimed Hammerstein. ‘You a Hun-hater or what?’

‘S- Sniper,’ Eddie replied, somewhat confused by the question.

Hammerstein stroked his moustache for a few moments, then, as if seized by an idea, reached into his waistcoat pocket and handed Eddie a card.

‘Hey, you’re sure a brave young man. Take this card to the box office and tell the lady I said you could have a complimentary for tonight’s performance. And, once you’ve seen the show, what would you say to meeting the ravishing Polaire?’

Eddie flushed with gratitude as he stammered his thanks. Hammerstein waved them away.

‘See you then tomorrow morning at 10.30 sharp. Just ask for me at the box office.’


Even if Eddie’s life had depended on it, he couldn’t have recounted a single plot detail of the play that night. From her first entrance, he was captivated by the spectacle of Polaire. Although quite short and with a dusky, Arab complexion, she had the most breathtaking figure Eddie had ever seen. As she removed her black satin cloak with a tantalising flourish, there was an audible gasp around the auditorium. A voluptuous bustline and sensuously curving hips were accentuated by a tightly corseted waist so slender Eddie’s hands could have met around it. The exotic French timbre in her voice only fanned the obsession that had seized him the moment he ogled her undergarment in the foyer. The rest of the play passed in a blur. He slept very little that night, his mind restless with anticipation.

At 10.30 next morning, Hammerstein met Eddie as arranged at the box office. He was accompanied by a gaggle of press photographers, who jostled them as Hammerstein led Eddie backstage to a grand audience room, full of red velvet drapery with gold fringes and lit by two enormous chandeliers. Eddie felt increasingly disoriented as the minutes passed, until double doors at the end of the room swung open and the miraculous figure of Mlle Polaire swept through. Her dark, Arabian eyes flashed coquettishly as they surveyed the assembled group. Her mouth, lusciously crimson and pouting, softened into a smile as she noticed Eddie nervously doffing his cap.

‘B- Bonjewer, Mamzel Polaire,’ he stammered in a French accent that he suspected was even more excruciating than Hammerstein’s. She gave him a playful curtsey, the swell of her breasts rising thrillingly in a dress that was little more than a bustier.

‘Enchantée, M’sieur.’

The next twenty minutes elapsed in a haze of musky perfume and popping flashbulbs as Eddie, flushed with a mixture of pride and confusion, was encouraged first to take her hand then - ecstasy of ecstasies - to put his arm round that sensationally slender waist. As he did so, Polaire flashed him a smile that could have raised Lazarus. Its memory was still smouldering ten minutes later as Hammerstein steered him smoothly back to the foyer.

It was by pure chance that he bought the ‘Daily Mirror’ the following day. The front cover was filled with a photo of the Lusitania, torpedoed off Kinsale with huge loss of life. Eddie was just skimming the rest of the paper when he was startled by his own face staring back at him. There he was, grinning inanely with one arm slung around the stunning Polaire. Under the headline ‘POLAIRE THRILLS OUR HERO FROM THE FRONT’, the article described her as the ‘darling of the forces’ (which was news to Eddie) and related how ‘hordes of our brave boys’ were flocking to her nightly shows at the Coliseum. Eddie noted wryly that an extra hundred had been added to his tally of ‘knocked off Huns’ and, instead of the carelessly dropped ammunition box breaking his hand, it was the dastardly German innovation of chlorine gas that had sent him home from the front to recuperate.

He was still wondering what his mates in the 1st Hampshire back at the front would make of the photo as he queued later that day to buy tickets for the rest of the week’s performances. How many of them, he reflected, would rate a quarter page in the ‘Daily Mirror’ with one of their Flanders whores on their arm?

Each night for the rest of the play’s run, Eddie sat spellbound as Polaire flounced and twirled about the stage, those incandescent eyes blazing and her body striking poses that emphasised her wondrously slender waist. By the fourth night, he was sure she noticed him, and every night after that she would flash an especially alluring smile in his direction. If it wasn’t for that, he wouldn’t have dared muster the courage to accost her outside the stage door on that final night.

She left alone, wrapped in the black satin cloak of her stage persona, her face in the dim light no longer ablaze but tinged with a surprising sadness. Eddie thrust his way through the small throng of waiting admirers, most of them in uniform like him. A burly naval rating with HMS Agincourt on his cap elbowed him in the ribs as he passed.

Polaire seemed unsettled by the clamour, scanning the sea of eager faces blocking her path. Her eyes fell on Eddie and his heart forgot a beat as she flashed him a smile of recognition. To his astonishment, she took his arm, kissed him lightly on the cheek then reached up to whisper in his ear. Her perfume made him giddy.

‘M’sieur. Just walk.’

The naval rating shot Eddie a look like a battleship broadside as Polaire led him past the row of envious faces until the two of them were enveloped in the dank evening fog of St Martin’s Lane. He didn’t care where they were going; he would have happily strolled into the German trenches with her on his arm. As they walked, Eddie tried vainly to muffle the heavy clump of his army boots. His mind ran frantically through all the opening lines he had so carefully rehearsed over the previous four days.

‘Mamzel, may I s- s- say how much I admire your acting. S- Such a talent …’

Eddie’s voice tailed off as he realised he was beginning to sound like Hammerstein. Polaire started to remove her hand from his arm, but replaced it when she saw the disappointment in his face.

‘I am grateful to you, M’sieur. I just needed some way to escape.’

Her long, French-accented vowels were rich as treacle.

‘Escape from what?’

Eddie immediately regretted his directness. There was a flash of resentment in Polaire’s eyes, which softened as she sensed his remorse. They walked on for several minutes until the road opened out into Trafalgar Square. Polaire’s voice seemed muted when she spoke again.

‘Tell me, M’sieur: have you ever lost someone dear to you? Not a parent, or brother, but someone you could not imagine living without?’

Eddie’s face flushed.

‘I’ve n- never been that c- close. N- Not to a woman, if that’s what you mean.’

Polaire flashed him that coquettish smile again that made his eyelids twitch.

‘Then you are lucky. Perhaps it is better in these times to cling to nothing. There is no pain then when it is taken away.’

They continued in silence through Trafalgar Square, which was empty apart from a horse-drawn tram clattering its way from Charing Cross and a couple of hansom cabs waiting outside the National Gallery, their drivers swathed in their cloaks against the fog. Eddie recalled how, with the war on, some cabs were reportedly even driven by suffragettes.

As they turned into the Strand, their shadows mingling in the pools of gaslight from the streetlamps, Eddie felt Polaire’s hand tighten on his arm. He turned to look at her and was astonished to see tears welling in her eyes.

‘P- Please, Mamzel Polaire - is there something I can do?’

She shook her head and dabbed at her eyes with the edge of her satin cloak.

‘How old are you, M’sieur?’

‘C-Call me Eddie. Please. I’m t-twenty one.’

‘And you do not fight in the war?’

‘Yes. I g- go back tomorrow. This is my last night of leave.’

Polaire’s musky perfume and the gentle pressure of her breast on his arm were having increasing effects in Eddie’s battledress trousers. He had been walking on clouds when they left the theatre, but walking was now becoming a matter of some discomfort. So he was relieved when Polaire stopped outside the Strand Palace Hotel and led him gently by the arm through the gleaming glass and chrome lobby. A drink would be nice, he thought. However, she surprised him by leading him straight to the waiting elevator.

Eddie would later cling to the memories of that night during his darkest moments at the front. At first hesitant, then growing in confidence as Polaire’s passion suffused them both, he explored the unmapped landscape of love until he could search no further. By the end of the night, there was scarcely an acre left undiscovered.

When he stepped outside the hotel next morning into the misty dampness, early trams were already rattling along the Strand and fruit-filled wagons clopped by on their way to market. As he dashed over the road to Charing Cross station, he realised with a start that Polaire had barely spoken another word to him beyond a sleepy ‘adieu’ that morning as he had checked his pocket watch and hastily dressed. He thought of returning to the room, but he knew the price of missing the 06.45 to Southampton and the waiting troopship. These days the generals seemed to be trying to outdo the French in the numbers of deserters shot.

It was only as he stood at the ticket office window, paralysed by the imperious stare of the grey-haired matron 'doing her war duty' behind the counter, that Eddie remembered his rail warrant and kit bag still lying under the bed of his temporary digs in Whitechapel. He pulled a half crown from his pocket and slid it across the counter.

'Single to Southampton, please.' His two most dreaded consonants and he had managed them without a stumble.

Eddie arrived back with his regiment in time for the preparations for the Big Push at Loos. For the next few months he eked out his days in that flat, treeless landscape, concealed in foul-smelling slag heaps or muddy Russian saps. Most days, his lungs slowly choked with coal dust thrown up by the artillery bombardments. Once in his lungs, it had to stay there for hours because, for a sniper, one cough could be fatal.

His role in The Big Push, when it finally came, was short-lived. He was lying in an advance redoubt overlooking the Lens road early one morning as the attack started. The attack was to mark the first use of poison gas by the British. They hadn’t issued the regiment with masks because they didn’t consider it necessary. But in the windless conditions, most of it drifted back onto their own lines. All Eddie could think of as they carried him retching back to the field dressing station was his picture with Polaire in ‘The Daily Mirror’ and the irony of the article’s patriotic embellishment of his injuries as inflicted by German gas.

Because of the huge influx of casualties, Eddie spent the weeks it took his seared lungs to recover at a field hospital only two miles from the constantly shifting front lines. Before long, the constant cacophony of groans and cries of pain and the frequent crump of artillery barrages or detonating mines ceased to keep him awake. In a way, he found them oddly comforting. It was the occasional silences that disturbed him.

By mid-October, the two opposing armies had fought one another to a standstill between Loos and Givenchy. The British had gained just a few additional acres of mud at a cost of over 50,000 casualties.

After the New Year, life began to return to some sort of normality with the arrival of the divisions withdrawn from Gallipoli. The deliveries of mail and newspapers at the field hospital became less erratic. As his breathing gradually improved, Eddie even had the occasional moment of leisure to catch up with news from home.

One afternoon, two weeks before he was due to return to his regiment, he opened the ‘Daily Mail’ and was surprised by Polaire’s picture staring back at him. She was returning, following her triumph of the previous year, for a new season at the Coliseum.

The letter Eddie composed and sent to her took him the rest of that final fortnight to write. There were some fine phrases. He could be so honest with his feelings on the page, even if his tongue rebelled whenever he tried to voice them.

He was still congratulating himself, three days after he posted the letter, as he lay cocooned in his full-body sniper’s suit overlooking Vimy Ridge while the Royal Engineers tunnelled away deep beneath him. There was a cold wind blowing down from the coalfields at Lens, delivering its usual cargo of coaldust across the trenches. Although his lungs had been ravaged, he hadn’t forgotten the importance of keeping them under control.

Though this wind seemed to carry something else as well. There was a faint, musky smell that made him light-headed as he breathed it deep into his lungs. His heartbeat quickened as an image strutted brazenly through his mind. He was beginning to feel hot for the first time in months.

He rested the rifle in the crook of his left arm and reached for the top button of his sniper’s suit.


*****


A few weeks later a package arrived for him at battalion HQ, just as Captain Morant, his company commander, was parcelling his belongings for return to Eddie’s mother in Lyndhurst. They didn’t amount to much, thought Morant: just a few trinkets; a theatre programme from 1915; seven show tickets and a carefully-preserved press cutting of Eddie with some foreign-looking floozy. Not much to show for 22 years, 89 confirmed kills and a German sniper’s bullet in the head.

Morant sliced open the package with his bayonet. There was a brief letter from a William Hammerstein, announcing simply that ‘Polaire asked me to send you this’. It was wrapped around another package, whose contents were altogether more intriguing. It was an hourglass, miraculously whole considering the BEF’s postal service, with a note in a woman’s hand, heavily scented with musk. It read:

‘Adieu, mon cheri. Perhaps this will remind you of me. So, you ask me how long love endures in this foolish world? Bien. Just turn it over.’


- ends -


FOOTNOTE: In response to comments by several incredulous reviewers: the illustration accompanying this piece is a genuine photo of Pauline Polaire, stage name of the Algerian-born actress Emilie Marie Bouchaud (1874-1939). Once famously sketched by Toulouse Lautrec, she was renowned for the tiny size of her corsetted waist. A star of music hall, stage and silent films, her remarkable figure was promoted during her first visit to the US via a 14 inch rule inserted in the theatre programme with the invitation: 'This is Polaire's waist measurement - what's yours?' For her subsequent appearance at the London Coliseum in 1915, her publicity agent William Hammerstein (sic) put one of her 14 inch corsets on display in a showcase at the theatre, announcing her waist to the public as 'this gift of the gods'.

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