by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents
Chapter I, part 3
appears in this issue.
When we go but one step beyond the immediately sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depth.— Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry
into the Origin of Our Ideas
of the Sublime and Beautiful
Olivier sat at a marble-topped café table on a busy boulevard. Light autumn rain drizzled from a gray cloud-filled late afternoon sky. Droplets pattered against the side-walk café’s awning, rolled down and dribbled into rippling puddles on the pavement. He smoked a cigarette and sipped Pernod as he watched and listened to the mostly motorized traffic rumbling and clattering through the downpour up and down the boulevard, horns honking like a flock of migrating geese.
Olivier had propped up his artificial left leg on an empty chair and hooked his cane onto the chair-back. He stubbed out his almost finished cigarette, deposited it in an ashtray and then reached beneath the table to rub the stump where it still chafed against the newly fitted prosthesis. He sighed and then looked up as he heard the sound of briskly striding boots splashing toward him down the damp pavement. The tall handsome figure of a Commandant in uniform appeared out of the gray misting rainfall. Olivier’s face brightened in a smile of recognition and surprise. “Roland,” he exclaimed, “is it you?”
The Commandant walked to the table, smiled broadly and extended his hand; “Well I’ll be damned. Imagine, Olivier, our meeting here like this after all these years.” As they shook hands, Commandant Oudinot noticed a change in the face of the young man he had known in Africa. No doubt, three years of war had added a tinge of sadness around the eyes. Oudinot also noticed the leg, the lieutenant’s insignia and a Croix-de-guerre with palm pinned to Olivier’s blue tunic.
“Please join me, old man.” He winced as he awkwardly moved his leg from the chair. “Sorry about the cane; could you please hand it to me?”
Oudinot lifted the cane from the back of the chair and passed it to his friend. He then pulled up to the table, sat and said the first thing that came to mind. “I see that you’re drinking Pernod, my friend. Will you permit me to buy a round?”
Olivier laughed. “You may buy as many rounds as you wish, Commandant.”
Oudinot turned and snapped his fingers to get the attention of a waiter inside the café. The waiter came to take the order and not long after returned with their drinks. Before he took his first sip of Pernod, Oudinot’s face darkened a bit. He looked directly at Olivier and asked in an almost whisper, “I’m sorry, old boy. Where did you catch it?”
Olivier smiled sadly. “Going up the ridge at Chemin des Dames. Machine gun fire killed or wounded more than half of our company.”
Oudinot looked down for a moment. Chemin des Dames conjured up memories of the spring offensive, most of them unpleasant and some unspeakably horrible. After a while, he looked up. “I was there too, leading a Senegalese battalion.”
Olivier took a sip of Pernod, and then observed wistfully, “Imagine that; we might have been no more than a kilometer apart, yet we meet here like this.”
Oudinot smiled broadly as his memory flashed back to a scene more than three years earlier. “It’s happened just as you wished, when I left you at Sayyid Ali’s doorway in Timbuktu.”
“Of course, you’re right,” Olivier exclaimed. “It was to be here that we met again, or on the Côte d’Azur.” He glanced around and grinned. “We have the Pernod my friend, but where are the girls?”
Oudinot laughed, reached over and clapped Olivier on the shoulder. “We’ll find them before this day is done, I promise you.”
* * *
For more than an hour they smoked, drank Pernod and talked of their war experiences, about how they had stopped the Germans at the Marne; and then the odd peace of the first Christmas followed by years of stalemate and intermittent carnage; about poison gas, Zeppelins and airplanes, and machine guns and tanks and shells the size of small automobiles; and about the back and forth slaughter of Ypres and the charnel house of Verdun; the gallantry and abominable waste of the British at the Somme, and the failure of the Nivelle offensive and threats of mutiny; and how the Yanks were coming, and some were already here; and the Yanks were good fellows, and eager but green as grass; and how they would soon have a taste of it, and how bitter that taste would be; and the Russians were faltering on the Eastern Front and how there seemed no end in sight.
Suddenly, after three rounds of Pernod, Olivier muttered, “Enough of the bloody war. Let’s change the subject.”
“Of course,” Oudinot agreed. His speech was a bit boozy, halting and slurred. “You... you know, old boy, I’ve always been curious about what happened after I left you. I mean to say, how did it all turn out with Sayyid Ali and the count?”
Olivier’s bleary eyes widened and he grinned like the Cheshire Cat. “Ah, yes, now that is a story.” He patted his friend on the arm. “That’s a three-Pernod story, if ever there was one.”
Olivier told Oudinot about the meeting with Sayyid Ali, the mirror and the Mysterion legend and the boat trip back to Koulikoro where he had met briefly with his uncle before boarding the train for Dakar. Then, after wiring ahead to the count he boarded the steamer to Marseilles where he debarked and stayed overnight in a decent hotel. The following day he took the short journey by rail to Nice where he registered at the Hotel Negresco.
“I heard that’s a lovely place with a... with a grand view of the ocean.” Oudinot’s interjection was punctuated by a hiccup. “And it’s said to be very clean and modern too, with excellent service.”
“Yes, it’s quite nice, but I wasn’t there for long. Upon arrival I telephoned the count’s villa from the lobby and a servant told me they’d send a car for me at noon the following day.
“I slept well that night, awoke early, took a warm bath and then had a barber cut my hair and shave off the beard I had grown in Africa. I had a light breakfast in the dining room and then went to the lobby, packaged mirror in hand, found a comfortable chair near the main entrance and read the newspapers while I waited for the count’s car. About ten minutes to noon I started checking my watch and the lobby clock. Sure enough at exactly twelve p.m. a gray uniformed chauffeur entered the lobby and glanced around as if looking for someone.
“I got up and waved, the chauffeur greeted me, took my package and led me out the front door to a magnificent silver Rolls-Royce parked in the Hotel driveway. It was a perfect day on the Riviera; bright blue sky and warm sunshine tempered by a moderately cool salt breeze blowing in from the ocean. I entered the red-leather upholstered back seat and enjoyed the sea view as we drove out to the street and then through Nice to the main road and the hills just north of the city.
“After a twenty-minute drive we turned onto a private graveled road and then continued for about one kilometer past the estate’s vineyards until we came to a large, cream-colored three-story Italianate villa. The driver stopped the car in front of the entrance, took the package, opened my door and escorted me up a flight of stairs to the villa’s front door. There, the chauffeur handed me off to a butler.
“Before entering the vestibule I took in the view from the portico: verdant shade tree and vineyard covered hills leading down into the city, and then the deep blue harbor dotted with a few white yachts and smaller sailboats, all beneath a calm almost cloudless azure sky.”
Oudinot closed his eyes and sighed, “I can see it, my friend; I long to be there.” Then, he apologized, “Sorry, old man, please continue.”
“The butler led me through the marbled vestibule into an ornate drawing room, and by ornate I mean everything was almost too deluxe, like one finds in the home of an arriviste: Directoire and Empire eclectic furniture; Sèvres porcelain; Persian carpets and Gobelins tapestries on the walls.”
“I know the sort of room. You don’t want to sit down for fear of defiling the furniture with your lowly buttocks.”
Olivier grinned. “You get the picture, my friend. Anyway, the butler left me holding the package while I remained seated in a chair that might have once hosted Napoleon the Great’s rear end. I assumed the servant went to notify the count of my arrival.
“I drummed my fingers for a few minutes, looking around at all the chi-chi knick-knacks and wishing nothing more than to get the business over with and return to my hotel, when into the room walked the most beautiful young woman I’d ever seen.”
Oudinot exclaimed, “It’s about time old man; now you have my undivided attention.”
“She was dressed in black silk mourning that rustled as she walked into the chamber. Her movement was sinuous; a sleek cat stalking its prey. She had a fresh earthy scent like a garden after a mild rain and she was dark and lovely as an unveiled houri. But my friend, I can’t do her justice; that would take a poet. Do you know these lines of Byron?
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies...
“Yes, yes, of course I know them; who doesn’t?” Oudinot interjected, his appetite whetted for an evening’s pursuit of the fair sex. “So I take it that she was a tasty piece. Please get on with it.”
For a moment, Olivier seemed entranced by her memory. “The black dress should have been a giveaway; to cut things short, she was the count’s widow, the old boy having pegged out two weeks earlier. Until that time, I had no idea that he was married, not to mention the fact that his wife was a stunner young enough to be his granddaughter.
“She introduced herself and then handed me an envelope containing the count’s exoneration of all my debts. I, in turn, handed her the package and she unwrapped the mirror. Legend or not, the thing seemed awfully plain in comparison to the room’s furnishings, yet I’ll wager that the count paid Sayyid Ali as much for it as the cost of the villa and the vineyards, with the silver Rolls-Royce thrown in. Regardless, if the countess was disappointed with the count’s purchase she didn’t show it.
“I expressed my condolences for her loss and was about to leave, when unexpectedly she gave me the most disarming smile, touched my hand lightly and whispered, ‘Please don’t go yet Monsieur, it’s such a lovely day. You must join me on the terrace for some refreshment.’”
Oudinot laughed loudly and slapped Olivier’s shoulder. “Damn it, old man, you needn’t go any further. You were hooked.”
“Yes, I was hooked, like the dumbest little fish in the deep blue sea. The hook bit deeply and I was reeled in so fast it made my head spin. The Rolls-Royce went back to the Hotel without me. The driver collected my luggage and returned to the villa that became my home for the next three months.”
Oudinot glanced at his watch. “That was a fine story, my friend, but night has fallen, the rain’s stopped and Paris is ablaze with light. The hunter is ready for the chase.”
Olivier looked around the café and the boulevard. Light from electric lamps and the headlights of numerous automobiles glimmered in reflection on the dark damp pavement. He noticed a couple of pretty girls seated at a table not far from them; one looked briefly in Olivier’s direction and smiled. “Those two might do for a start.”
“I’ve noticed them, my friend. I hope, like a good soldier, you carry a sheath to protect your sword?”
“Of course, and I have extras courtesy of my friend the company medical officer.”
They both had a good laugh and the girls noticed. Oudinot was about to walk over to the other table, when Olivier bid him wait a minute. Oudinot protested, “We need to get moving, my friend, before someone else comes along and bags our quarry.”
“Of course, Roland; just a minute and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”
Oudinot leaned back and sighed, “Proceed.”
“Things went along well enough between the countess and me, although I noticed that some people cut us when we went out. I didn’t think too much of it at first; I figured they resented her taking up with me so soon after the count’s death. But I learned that there was more to it. I picked up some gossip from the servants. It seems there were those who suspected that Cecile — that was the countess’s name — had poisoned the old boy.”
Oudinot looked in the girls’ direction; they were gone. Turning back to Olivier, he muttered, “Well, at least the story’s interesting and there are plenty more in Paris where those two came from.”
“Sorry, my friend; to continue, we were happy for a while despite the rumors, although Cecile had her moods and we had some nasty arguments. Things went on that way until the declaration of war and the mobilization. I told her that I’d be off to join my Regiment and she made a terrible scene, at times pleading and at other times threatening. I’m sure the servants got an earfull. She said she couldn’t live without me and she wanted me to do a bunk: run off with her to Buenos Aires on her yacht.”
Oudinot’s face reddened. “I hope you gave her what for?”
“I certainly did, my friend. I packed my bags and fled the villa that very night.”
“That was the only decent thing to do. No woman worth a damn could love a man and demand he dishonor himself.”
“Exactly so, and she found another fellow soon enough.”
“Her kind always does.”
“Yes, of course, and they came to a bad end.” Olivier looked down at his hands. Oudinot said nothing and then Olivier continued. Looking directly into Oudinot’s eyes, he murmured, “It’s the strangest thing. Several months after I broke off with the countess, her butler shows up as an orderly in my company. I still wasn’t completely over Cecile and I pumped him for information. He told me that she and her deserter lover had run off to South America and that they were now both dead.”
Fascinated, Oudinot leaned over the table and whispered, “How did it happen?”
“According to the butler, it was murder and suicide. The young man strangled the countess with a strand of her pearls while she was looking into a mirror. He then took a revolver and put a bullet through the mirror and another through his head.” Olivier stopped a moment and closed his eyes. “The police found a pair of smashed antique spectacles next to the young man’s body and the shattered mirror was the one that the count purchased from Sayyid Ali.”
Oudinot shook his head. “Thank you my friend, that’s just what I needed: a supernatural story and a damned depressing one at that.”
“Don’t you believe it?”
“Not the hocus-pocus part. The Mysterion legend, the Rumi and Nostradamus mirror and spectacles are old wives’ tales, gossip and rubbish, nothing more.”
“But he did kill her, and then killed himself. And he broke the mirror and the spectacles. Why did he do it?”
“That’s obvious. The poor bastard saw the truth about himself and the countess. He couldn’t live with the shame and dishonor and he blamed her for his downfall. It’s just a matter of conscience, my friend; you don’t need a magic mirror and spectacles to know good from evil and right from wrong.”
At that moment, the two girls they had seen earlier returned from the café’s powder room and walked toward Roland and Olivier. The shorter and younger looking of the pair, a petite bleached blonde spoke first. “Would you gentlemen like some company for the evening?”
A broad grin spread over the Commandant’s face. “Of course, my dear, have a drink with us. I’ll fetch a couple of chairs and call the waiter.”
The older of the two, a tall brunette, sat next to Olivier. She smelled nice and he thought her quite pretty. She looked at his cane, his leg and then at the Croix de guerre on his chest. Her rouged lips curled upward slightly and her dark eyes exuded sympathy.
He thought that she might be just the thing to take the edge off and help him through another night.
The waiter brought their drinks on a tray and Commandant Oudinot proposed a toast. “Let’s drink to victory.” He lifted his Pernod and ogled the girls. The little peroxide blonde giggled. They emptied their glasses, and Roland turned to Olivier. “Now, it’s your turn, my friend.”
Olivier filled their glasses and made his toast, “To the fallen.” For a moment, Olivier turned and glanced at their reflection in the café window. The fallen: Did Olivier salute those killed in the war, or the damned and dishonored? Roland and the women assumed Olivier meant the honored dead.
They smiled, clinked glasses and drank. Oudinot called the waiter and settled the bill. They got up from the table and walked to the curb where Oudinot hailed a taxi. The car halted with a screech of its brakes. Laughing, the heroes and their ladies piled into the back seat and drove off into the night.
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder