THE COUNTESS OF GUICHE!!!
And her damnable dogs.
THE WOMAN WAS SLICK. No stone went unturned in pursuit of an eye-popping presentation. The interior of the wagon is black, with stars and occult symbols embroidered on a black silk canopy, in gold thread, which catches the candlelight. The air is scented with incense. A raven sits a perch, and occasionally on her shoulder, a startling sight. She frequently consults the bird, which responds to her questions in croaks proclaimed to be ancient Egyptian. In place, ready for business, she has a cord tied around her ankle, which communicates through a hole in the floor with a confederate stationed outside. When she gives a jerk, a man strums a small harp, in a dark range, but quietly, so that a customer might question whether they had or had not heard something of significance. Pure hoke, but it went over with the bumpkins.
A dwarf in equally garish garb stands at her door, collecting a fee, ushering seekers in and out, introducing them with ceremony, proclaiming, upon their retreat, “Another satisfied customer! Is the learned Madame not a wonder, friend? Worth every penny?” No matter what the response might be, replying, “We thank you, Madame, or Mam’selle, (the clients were generally women) for your kind endorsement!”
A second dwarf works the crowd: “Madame Haptchepsut is now receiving! Let the confused, the curious, and the love-lorn repair to her side to receive her insights. She is the equal of any divinatress in Paris. You would do well to avail yourself of the opportunity!” He is accompanied by a jackdaw. If the gnome is attacked by strutting bullies, as often happens, a word from the besieged gremlin sends the bird shrieking at them, going for the eyes.
Many are sincerely devoted to the esoteric. Few have the gift. The majority of practitioners are either fools – which she most certainly was not – or charlatans, in it for a buck, no bad thing. Sly is comfortable with that, he’s done much the same many a time. His goal is to convince the woman she has big things in store for her in Paris.
An opportunity to impress her comes sooner than he’d expected. The troupe had set down in _______, no dust-caked village, but a good-sized town with a paved square and stately residences. A handsome carriage stopped in the smart commercial district. A party of young people emerged and headed for a sweet shop. One of them, spying a colorful tarp at the far end of the Place d’_________. “Come along, now,” she’d ordered gaily. “I want my fortune! I get my way, all day! Those are the birthday rules!” This was the set-up Sly had been looking for.
He sat feet from them. It is the young lady’s birthday. What other information may be divulged? “Don’t torture yourself, dearest,” begged a young man. “It’s hopeless. We must take your aunt’s advice. I see no way around it.” The companions looked away. The brave front which they have struggled to maintain all morning gives way to somber-eyed silence.
The girl points to the face on the tarp across the square. “Oh! Those are wise eyes! Ah! That’s a wise face! This one shall tell me how to change Papa’s mind! She shall!” Her friends sigh in unison. The male takes her arm. She pushes him away.
“Do as Aunt Cora says! Fine for you to say! You won’t be the one to get into bed with a pig!” Yvonne _______ _______ was due to be married to her father’s business partner in three months’ time. “Marry a man I detest, then take a lover! As women do! As we must, for we have no say in our destiny. Well, I won’t! I won’t, I won’t, I won’t! I’ll drown myself in this fountain, here today!”
A woman got down from the coach. “Let me talk to her,” she said. “You three go after the treats. Leave us. Child, she says, we go through this again and again. I believe you are reconciled to that which must be, and you collapse on me anew. My poor ________! There’s no alternative, my dear. This is the way of the world. At least it’s the way of our world. Your _______, he’s a nice boy. I like him, I do, but to marry for love is a bad business. Love fades. Who’s to say that he won’t mistreat you one day? Wouldn’t that truly break your heart? A husband is master absolute to a wife. Such power tends to corrupt, yes, even a sweetheart like your _______. Marry a cipher, child, who lets you be, after you’ve given him an heir. Then, take a lover to your taste. M. _____ is perfect for you. Why can’t you see it? He’s too wrapped up in himself to heed discreet misbehaviors. Twenty years your senior, he’ll die and leave you a jubiliant widow. Then, you’ll do as you please. Let’s you and I visit Madame-_______. She’ll tell you the same thing, if she’s as wise as she claims to be.”
The girl stamps her foot. “I go by myself! You’ll twist her words until they seem to mean what you want them to mean! I know you!”
The companions return with a basket of pastries and a crock of lemonade. “There’s a table in front of the shop,” the aunt pointed out. “Let’s sit and try to compose ourselves.” She takes her niece’s hand. “We have gifts for you, my dear. What have your friends chosen for you? I’m dying to see! Come! Enjoy the fine afternoon and admire your new toys. Then, if you must, call on Madame Fleece-The-Fools. But if you would consult a genuine visionary, come with me to my Collette in Paris.”
“How do you know your Collette is any better? I don’t see old He-Who hanging on your elbow, salivating over you like he used to. How do you know she’s not a fraud also?”
“Everyone knows, that’s how I know. She’s booked solid. One waits weeks for an appointment. Coaches line the street in front of her door. One sees at a glance who her clientele consists of, and believe me, it is the creme de la creme. Special friends, of whom I’m pleased to be able to say that I am one, are slipped in on short notice, through a side door. It would not do for it to be seen that a Duchess and even a Princess are made to twiddle their thumbs in an antechamber while a mere Countess gets straight in.
“La _________ is the most expensive divinatress in Paris. No one would pay those prices if she wasn’t good. Yes, I admit that her love-philters have thus far failed to curb the despicable behaviors of He-Who. But she gives me great peace of mind, and that’s worth something. My bad boy will come around. She swears it. I believe her.”
Poor woman! Is she deluding herself? Perhaps. Here’s the thing: you did not count this woman out, ever. If you thought her simple, frankly, many did, more fool you. She’s sharp as a tack but she hides it, until she doesn’t.
The aunt’s back had been turned to Sly all this time. The voice is familiar, but he can’t, for the life of him, place it. She wears a travel bonnet with a veil. Now she removes it, handing it off to a coachman. As she does so, she turns to him full-face. Aunt Cora is none other than Corisande, Countess of Guiche.
She’d been much discussed in Haute-Navarre. He’d heard of every silly thing she’d ever said or done. The juicy details must be fed to Mama B, who will make good use of them. Corisande will get her beads read as she never has. By the time she emerges from the consultation her head will be swimming. Shyster? Not on your life. The woman offers, not vague predictions which can be variously interpreted, but astoundingly accurate readings on matters few knew of.
The birthday party will occupy them for an hour. He has time to compose a brief biography:
Madame, look to the fountain. A carriage stops in the square, the carriage of my Aunt. I wish to play a little joke on her. She doubts your abilities. Let us change her mind. I will entice her to your tent. Use the following information to astound her. Excuse my scrawl, I write rapidly.
My aunt’s name is Corisande. She is musical. She plays the harpsichord, but not well. She imagines she has a voice, and is encouraged in the lunacy by a teacher who conducts her with plugged ears hidden by a shock of hair. She is eager to sing at my upcoming nuptials. Papa decrees it shall be so, for we must not offend one with a fortune to leave us, she having no issue of her own. My husband-to-be, impressed by holdings in Gascony which are to descend to me, I am her favorite, is also mad to oblige her. He has insisted that she perform her favorite piece, which she never fails to insult. Why do I care? I will be miserable anyway.
She is handsome, despite a minor physical indignity, which she imagines to be worse than it is. One shoulder is a bit higher than the other, and one leg a bit shorter. She conceals this by an astute choice of sleeve. She is never without some outsized flounce or other odd arrangement on the right shoulder, and she often rests the right hand on the hip. One might easily put the posture down to an arch attitude, she is a notable wit.
She lives to gamble. Her husband, passed on–from a slow-acting poison, whisper a few old bats, cognizant that the man objected violently to his wife’s favorite entertainment. He cared nothing about her many flirtations, but the gaming drove him wild. At one point he locked her up in a convent, where she introduced the sisters to basset. She was thrown out on her ear. The unhappy Count (she is a Countess) paid through the nose to have the incident hushed up.
This is a close held story, none but relatives have heard it. Mention the name of the Mother Superior, Agathe-Bertolde, if you want to see my aunt jump out of her skin. She ripped off the woman’s mother-of-pearl crucifix in a farewell tussle, or maybe it fell by chance, I don’t know the strict facts. Aunt Cora claims she seized it, but that may be puffery. Somehow, the thing ended up in her possession. She wears it always. She has it on today.
She gambles yet, but her husband’s will has her on a tether. A lawyer oversees her affairs, pays her living expenses, and gives her quarterly pocket money to drop at cards. When that runs out she makes deals with dressmakers to inflate their prices, sending trade their way, splitting the difference. She promotes a certain La ________, a seer, like yourself. Papa and I believe she gets a kick-back there also. Her salon attracts the most amusing people in Paris for she is gay and, as I’ve said, a wit. Her elegant salons are always packed, and with such an odd mix that we wonder if she doesn’t solicit attendance and charge admission as another way to raise money.
I had expected her to be an ally against the marriage Papa intends for me, but she takes his part. Marry not for love, she scolds me. In the end, you are sad. This is her pain talking. She is neglected by her paramour. We refer to him as He-Who, short for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned-In-My-Presence. Her enduring flame is the dashing King of Navarre. She is disrespected by the French court at present, but they dare not go too far, the man is sincerely attached to her, and she may yet rise from the ashes, the reigning Mistress of a King of France.
Her recommendation, Madame, is much to be desired. If she wishes to, she can make you a star. Expect, shortly, a distinguished lady in blue and beige, and a girl of seventeen, in pink and white. If you would put in a good word for my point of view in regard to the marriage, I would greatly appreciate it.
Sly recruited Pedro to deliver the note, along with the explanation that it had been entrusted to him by a charming young lady in pink.
The festive group emerged from the arcade and made for the carriage. The door is swung wide, ready to receive them. The girl has been talked out of having her fortune told. Damn!
Sly dashes to the contrivance and throws himself at a window. He works himself up until he is able to hook over the sill. Curled in the interior are those abominable dogs. Hello, boys, he howls. Long time no see. What’s the good word, eh? You dips as dopey as ever? He pushes off and runs for dear life. Two furious canines slip out the door just before it is slammed shut.
Sly makes a bee-line for Mama’s wagon. Her door is open, in expectation of the visit. He flies past Mama, jumps to her table spread with cards, knocking them helter-skelter, leaps to the raven’s stand, the highest spot in the wagon, and, despite the bird’s outrage, informed the creature that he had no intention of vacating the position, no matter what. “Don’t try anything cute,” he hisses. “I have claws too.”
The dogs are in. The wagon is all barking and leaping and tumbled knick-knacks. Mama surveys the destruction, wringing her hands. Aunt Cora stands in the portal in a dither. Her coachman squeezes by, grabs the pups one by one, and hands them off to the amused young people outside.
“I’m so sorry, saya Cora. They are always so well-behaved. Let me compensate you for the damage.” She opens a purse on her belt.
“No, no, it’s nothing,” insists Mama. “A quick pick-up will put all to rights. Madame! I was ready for you. Give me a few minutes. Collect your thoughts. We commence your consultation.”
“I require no consultation!” answers Corisande coldly. “I am come for my runaways. I have them.” She drops a handful of coins on the table. “For your trouble. More, I fancy, than you would have gotten from your scam.”
“You should return the crucifix, you know,” whispers Mama, placing her fingers at her temples, as if receiving a message.
Corisande cocks her head. “What did you say?”
“Someone lacks her relic, blessed by the Holy Father himself. She lost it, years back. The name . . . .” She closes her eyes, the better to concentrate.
Corisande is in the doorway, half in, half out.
“The voices!” shrieks the seer. “Several would have a word with you. I’m the husband! Me first!” Mama growls, jerking the cord around her ankle. An almost imperceptible fanfare ensued. “Where’s my crucifix?” she hisses, gazing glassy-eyed at the frozen-featured woman. A second wave of dark dissonance erupts.
Corisande lowers herself into a chair, the one and only upholstered piece in the entire caravan. It has a crumbling leather seat, hidden under a silk cushion in anticipation of the visit of a Countess. “Witch!” she screams, pounding a fist on the tabletop.
“I beg your pardon!” replied Madame Hapushet, taken aback. Was she accused of being a witch?
“You want your crucifix back, do you? You lost it fair and square! You’re the one chose to toss it into the pot! No one forced you. But I’d long admired it, and I wasn’t about to hand it back. It’s mine, I won it. Hercule paid you for it on top of that, when you accused me of theft.”
“I paid to placate a sore loser?” growled Mama in a lower range. She knew how to go with the flow.
“Ass!” screeched Corisande. “Didn’t you afflict me sufficiently in life? You scold me from the grave? Oh, I’m glad I dosed you! Glad, you hear? I should have done it years sooner.”
“What’s this? I died of __________. It’s in the report.”
“Ha! Nothing you can do about it! By the way, where are you, up or down?”
“None of your damn business!”
“You’re down! Justice is served! You made me miserable, you ________. A dreary castle at the ends of the earth, surrounded with crones! No giddy young companions for your gay bride, she was silly enough already. Well, if I was silly, it was to spite you! I gambled, to spite you! I taught my keepers to gamble, to spite you! I lost your money, to spite you!”
“You continue to lose. What’s the excuse now?”
“I enjoy myself. I lose to friends in need. I have brilliant, talented friends, writers, artists. It’s a kind way to help them. I feed them at my assemblies, and I lose money which covers their rents. They are able to hold their heads up. No one pities them. Let the world to pity me, for being a fool at the gaming table. I can take it. I laugh about it. I get back far more than I pay out, in terms of the pleasure from being a patron of the arts.” Corisande stands up. “The interview, Madame, is over.”
Nuts! Where was the acknowledgment of a stunning performance? Where is the invitation to visit her in Paris? “Etcetera!” shrieks Sly. He whacked the raven on the rear.
Corisande is tugging at the door handle, there is a trick to it, you hav to rock the latch while you pull.
The bird emits a series of sharp complaints. When he’d quieted, Sly intones a line of verse, a quavering phrase in a thin treble, and punched him again, to provoke additional sound effects, so that it seems to be an indignant bird who delivers an incantation:
“Etcetera would have a word with you, Madame. Three cards, from the tarot withdrawn, examined by a bird, will tell you all you need to know.”
“What do you know of Etcetera?” demands Corisande, now in a confused frenzy. “No one knows! At least, not my naughty niece, who has put you up to a ghastly joke.” Furious, she swats Mama, luckily, on the padded turban.
“I didn’t say it!” insists Mama. She pushes her chair back to escape more blows. Finding the maneuver to be futile, she jumps up to defend herself and stumbles, the cord attached to her ankle has become hooked around a chair leg. The musician on the other end, finding his leg tugged violently, produces a crescendo. Berthe careens to the cluttered floor, where she continues to gyrate, trying to free herself, the knot now pulled taut, difficult to undo.
“Stop, you moron!” shouts Mama, pounding the floor. The door flies open. Franz pokes his head in to investigate.
Perceiving the visitor about to depart, he puts a big smile on his face and begins his patter: “Is the good Madame not a wond . . . ?” The woman knees him out of the way, barrels down the stair, and beckons for her coach, cursing all the while.