The French Love Pastry and Her Tale in the Sand
(This is the first tale from the book presented in its entirety.)
Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, a fair young maiden arrived in a village by the sea and there took a room at the inn which offered the most promise. She called herself Mélisande, but could answer to soubrette, for she was indeed a very clever skirt. She was the vestal sort of tart, a dell who knew one end of the stick from the other—and then how to get her tail out of the way just in time. She was eight for eight against the brawnier sex and had never allowed a hit (nor made an error) with bases loaded. Let the milk of human kindness flow where it might, her cream jug was locked up tight.
Now, at this inn lived two other ostensible maidens, Nicole in fact and Michelle not yet showing. They were the ones who dispensed fresh sheets, and had Michelle only waited ’til the beds were emptied, she’d have missed out on twelve rounds of playful sparring, but at least avoided the knock out (read up) in the unlucky thirteenth. Fortunately, there is always a last resort, and in Michelle’s case he was the gap-toothed, arithmetically deficient village blacksmith she maneuvered to the altar some eight weeks later. But enough of Michelle—it’s Nicole we need to follow, and you may take my word, there’s no better angle from which to approach her.
A simple girl, born of peasant stock, but reasonably good-looking if conditions were favorable (or coming from behind), Nicole was as enamored of the male guests as Michelle. They were, for the most part, young American artists—a handful of painters, a sprinkling of poets, but largely a pack of poseurs—who’d come to this colony of expatriates on the Pas-de-Calais to lap up culture at two bits a bottle.
Since the inn was owned by an American couple, that country’s vernacular came to serve as its lingua franca—and among the young men, it ran very frank indeed. Wherever the mistress of the inn was not, expletives shot this way and that, and colorful bits of anatomy flew freely.
This didn’t bother the young French chambermaids, of course, as neither knew English, and Michelle, at least, spoke the universal tongue (using the omni-versatile one with which she was blessed). It did, however, bother Fabian Shumpp.
Fabian was a scion of the renowned Shumpps of Pittsburgh. His late grandfather had perfected a blast furnace of revolutionary design, allowing his descendants to live high with only the vaguest notion of what service a blast furnace performed. One of the few guests to speak reasonable French, Fabian had taken a brotherly interest in Nicole, and they could often be found strolling beside the dunes in the evening. His protégée, he called her, and tried to infect the poor girl with his own deep devotion to literature by reading her long passages from Hugo and Zola. But her fever was of a different sort. She wanted Fabian in the worst way imaginable.
She’d fallen in love before, but never so hard. No French boy she’d ever met could hold a candle to Fabian. He possessed two great attractions for her, or any girl with the slightest bit of sense. The first, it must be admitted, was the vast material wealth that his paternal grandfather’s vision had made possible. We’d all like to think that in matters of love, we are above such thinking—but we think it just the same.
And Nicole should not be thought narrow-minded, for the second great attraction ranked at least as high in her esteem as the first. This was the vast material wealth passed down by the boy’s maternal grandfather, who’d spent his working life gaining control of the coke mines of western Pennsylvania and expressed his love of family by setting up a legally unassailable trust. There were lesser attractions as well. For one, Fabian, though no Adonis, was far better-looking than the village blacksmith, and no worse than the average farmer—excluding, of course, Jules, who’d taken up with that trollop Marie and was out of the running anyway.
Fabian was also exceedingly proper. He never pinched Nicole’s shapely derriè re—no matter how easy she made it—nor fondled her breasts, no matter how often they were presented. What’s more, he couldn’t abide crass language, which made him as popular with the other Americans as last week’s fish, and therefore always available for a stroll in the evening.
But Fabian did have one major-league flaw and her name was Myra Hartwell Covington. His comely fiancée occupied his every thought and all his feeble attempts at poesy were salvos aimed at her amidships. It was she who suggested he sojourn in France—absence makes the heart grow fonder, she told him—though if he grew any fonder, she risked serious eyestrain, as he crammed each new missive with ever-longer enumerations of her charms, the latest coming with three appendices and an illustrated glossary.
Nicole wanted very much to take Fabian’s mind off the competition, and offered herself, heart and soul, as well as lock, stock, and barrel, at every opportunity. Her sashaying hips were forever glancing off his, and whenever they sat down on the beach to rest, she hitched up her skirt and displayed her knees in a way that said subtly, yet unmistakably, “We’re open for business!”
But so pure were his thoughts, and somnolent his libido, he simply would not take the bait. Even when she pulled his hand to her heaving bosom, he only assumed she wanted his aid in buttoning the blouse which had somehow come undone.
Nicole was at her wits’ end. So far, all she had to show for the splaying and heaving was sand in her undergarments and a proneness to hyperventilation. What she needed was the counsel of someone thoroughly experienced with love’s ins and outs (and back-and-forths). Only one name presented itself, for like nearly all acquainted with her, Nicole was under the misapprehension that Mélisande’s safety curtain had risen for a continuous show sometime around her thirteenth birthday and that she hadn’t missed a turn since. Nicole found the fly donah in her room and laid bare her soul, in much the same way she hoped Fabian would do unto her.
“First,” Mélisande instructed her, “you must pretend to be just as offended by the wicked language of the other boys as he is. Cry on his shoulder, or in his lap if you can get there, and tell him how you wish someone would take you away from this godless house.”
Nicole did as she was told, but instead of proposing to elope, Fabian merely offered her train fare and suggested she might be happier working in some sort of shop.
“Ah, good!” Mélisande exclaimed when she learned of it. “Now he thinks you are a ‘good girl.’ Tonight, once you’re sure he’s in bed, go to his room and tell him the innkeeper needs your room for a special guest, and since he has a large bed to himself, and there is no doubt about his virtue, you will spend the night with him. But before putting out the light, take off all your clothes.”
“Oui! Only keep your rosary.”
“Ah! Because I am a ‘good girl.’”
Once again, Nicole did as she was told. She went to Fabian’s room fully expecting to cast aside her virtue, just as she did her lingerie, by the soft light of a candle. But so shocked was he by her immodest show in the shadows, he hid under the bed and refused to come out until morning.
“Mon Dieu!” Mélisande exclaimed. “He is un enfigneur!”
She’d known many priests so inclined, and saw no reason to think it unusual in the populace at large. But she was not so complacent as to leave her theory untested. That evening, she herself dressed in a suit borrowed from a sailor who owed her a favor (two if you count the time under the trestle) and all but tackled Fabian as he returned early to the inn from a reading by a symbolist poet whose carnal cravings he found insufficiently obscured. On diagnosing the disguised Mélisande’s intent, he ran from her, like an altar boy who’s noticed a certain something in the eye of the holy father helping him remove his cassock in the vestry after evensong.
“Well, at least now we know he doesn’t take the back roads,” Mélisande told her friend.
“Oui,” Nicole agreed. “But what next?”
It was not her friend, but that capricious flirt we call Providence who answered the girl’s query. For the very next morning Mélisande intercepted a telegram from Myra Hartwell Covington saying she’d made a surprise visit to France and would be arriving on the evening train from Le Havre.
Things looked bleak for the poor Nicole, who wanted very much to be the very rich Nicole, and not wind up with some farm boy who spat in bed like her cousin Yvette. She began to cry… but was quickly interrupted.
“Mon Dieu!” Mélisande exclaimed, as was her habit. “Save your tears, we will need them for later.”
“You have a plan?” Nicole asked.
“Oui, but we must act quickly.”
It was a bold plan, but as Mélisande well knew, Fortune goes weak in the knees for the bold.
It so happened that a wealthy young widow had stayed at the inn a few days before. She arrived late one evening with two hat boxes and a trunk, all full of fashionable mourning dress from Paris, and left early the next morning with a trunkful of canvas rags and two bonnets fashioned of newspaper.
While Mélisande admired the styling of her new wardrobe, she’d felt its dark shades did not become her. But how perfectly it fit with her newest and boldest plan. She and Nicole dressed themselves in mourning, then stopped in the kitchen, where each placed a slice of onion in her handkerchief.
“Now we go to the station. But let me do the talking,” Mélisande told the girl. “You only say oui when you hear your name. Tu comprends?”
When the train from Le Havre arrived, they easily recognized Myra from the photo-collage which adorned Fabian’s writing desk. Somberly, they approached her, dabbing their eyes and squeezing slices of onion as they went.
“Oh, you must be poor Miss Covington,” Mélisande said. “How we all pity you….”
“Pity me? What are you talking about?”
“Your dear Fabian… lost. His soul now…” Mélisande trailed off, looking skyward.
“What? What’s happened to him?”
“He gets very sick. Then, dead. Isn’t that so, Nicole?”
“How can that be? I had a letter from him just last week.”
“Oh, very quick it happened. Isn’t that so, Nicole?”
“This is so hard to believe. I must go to his hotel….”
“No, no, no!” Mélisande insisted. “Then you get sick.”
“Me? What is it?”
“Oh, very awful. Isn’t that so, Nicole?”
“But what exactly? Influenza?”
“What’s much worser than smallpox?”
“Eh… La lè pre!”
“La lè pre? I don’t understand. There must be someone who speaks English well enough to tell me.”
“No, no. They all go to the léproserie! Isn’t that so, Nicole?”
“Leprosy? They’ve all been sent to a leper colony?”
“Yes, yes. Very sad. You should go, quick. The train to Paris is coming now.”
“What about Fabian’s remains?”
“Oh. All burned up.”
“Dear god, how awful.”
“Not so bad. I have his nose. In a box. It fall off at breakfast yesterday. I will send it to you. And Nicole will send his ear she finds in her porridge. Won’t you, Nicole?”
“I don’t know what to do….” Myra tried playing it distraught, but without an onion slice of her own, the tears came grudgingly. Besides, either she was mentioned in the will or she wasn’t.
“Go to Paris,” Mélisande told her. “The new hats are very pretty. Look at these.”
“They are smart,” Myra agreed. “New fashions take forever to reach New York.”
The Paris train blew its whistle and Miss Covington, who had always felt she looked good in black, broke into a trot. Then, just as she was boarding, she called back over her shoulder, “Oh, you may keep the nose, mademoiselle, and the ear, of course.”
That evening at the Ritz, Myra burned Fabian’s letters as a precaution, saving only the illustrated glossary which had been prepared for her former fiancé by a young artist who’d studied Beardsley’s drawings in London and French postcards at Groton.
When Fabian inquired after her that evening for their customary stroll, Nicole the chambermaid was unavailable. But soon after setting out, he encountered the mysterious Madame Meneuse. She walked the dunes alone, veiled, and wearing Spanish leather boots and a low-cut black gown—recently cut a good deal lower to make the most of Nicole’s humble assets. She was weeping, softly, but loud enough for him to hear.
He followed her for some distance before summoning the courage to address her. Too far, thought Nicole, given the dainty dimensions of her footwear. But address her he did. As instructed, Nicole, speaking in vague monosyllables, told him of her loss and of her intense loneliness. Then she collapsed on the sand, seemingly overcome by emotion, but, truthfully, in desperate need to remove the two-sizes-too-small boots of Spanish leather, which were doffed in short order.
Fabian, who out of modesty had averted his gaze from Nicole’s humble assets, couldn’t help himself when it came to her sumptuous ankles. Something inside him awoke—his well-rested libido had fallen out of bed. As she flexed her curvaceous insteps, and massaged her sore but suggestive soles, he felt the chaste habits of a lifetime slipping away like the sand coursing between her beckoning toes.
Eventually, Fabian worked his way up from below, and Nicole got just what she deserved. Then, as dawn broke, her subterfuge became known to him. But so beguiling her pedals, so delectable her dactyls, Fabian forgave her all. Just in time, as it happened. Mélisande arrived on the scene with a burly stevedore for whom she’d done a favor (and given a promissory note for another). She introduced the hook-wielding giant as Nicole’s father. A simple wedding was held that afternoon.
Moral: Always put your best foot forward and you may find yourself with a staff of seventy and houses in New York, Newport, and Palm Beach.
Or: If you lead him by the nose, be sure to check the porridge for parts.