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THE LADY OF THE PURPLE AND YELLOW WAGON
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SLY RECOUNTS the episode to Pedro, acting out the parts, including Mama rolling on the floor. They both are laughing their heads off. Pedro groans, “Fun, but it doesn’t get us to Paris.”

“I’ve got the answer,” replies the cat. “Another letter!”

Pedro sighs.

“Oh, ye of little faith!” sings the cat. It is one of his favorite lines.

Pedro sighs again.

I knew Corisande would never fall for turbans and kohl-rimmed eyes. Throw in a black bird spouting doggerel and it’s a guaranteed flop.

Why’d you do it? What did you stand to gain, except a bird who detests you even more than he did?

It felt right. It still feels right. But that’s neither here nor there. I have other things on my mind. Help me get hold of a first line. When I get a first line, I’m generally on my way.

p First line. Of what?

s Of a letter.

p Who to?

s To Mama. Who else?

p Corisande, would have been my guess.

Sly rolls his eyes. Pedro says nothing.

s Don’t stop now. The wheels begin to turn, do they? Don’t be shy. Spill!

Here’s my thinking, barked Pedro, mimicking Sly’s self-confident assault. One in Paris, booked weeks ahead, may, for all we know, hire coaches to loiter at the curb, to create buzz.

I like it! cried Sly. Go on.

That level of clientele, very impressed with themselves. Not necessarily bad people, but having lived life catered to, they are convinced of their exceptionalism. They snap their fingers, the world jumps. For such folks, appearances are vitally important. This mystic in Paris, if she’s made a few lucky calls, it’s because she reads people. Mama does that! With the right clothes and the right introductions, she’d be a smash.

_______! cried Sly. You’re on the right track!

Here’s what I don’t get. You expected a top-of-the-heap to be so impressed by this hoke she’d urge Mama to follow her to Paris?

I never did.

What, then?

I expected Mama to be so excited by possibilities she‘s never even considered, that she dares to invade Paris on her own, with no help. Except that she will have help, encouragement, advice, even financial assistance. I’ll see to it. That’s where the letter comes in. I shall surrender another of my dwindling number of _________s. This is getting damn expensive. You’re cleaning me out, my friend. Look, consider it a loan. I want to be repaid, with interest. You’re the one with the mucho dinero. I’ve got a few stones. When they’re gone, they’re gone. You’ve got lands in Castille, and the Moneybags Gramps. I’ll be back on the street if I’m not lucky.

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At the encampment outside town, over dinner, a stew, for once more meat than filler, vegetables and grains, (the troupe, often paid in chickens and chops, always ate well on market days) a letter is received from a courier who immediately disappears, scotching any possibility of his being questioned.

To the Lady of the Purple and Yellow Wagon.

Gracious Madame; I was most uncivil earlier. I do apologize for my appalling behavior. I sensed one possessed of a gift, in spite of an absurd facade. If I was not beguiled by your text, that is not your fault. Kill not the messenger, it is said. May I add to this, Neither beat her over the head. Mea culpa, etcetera.

Etcetera! My naughty niece, who certainly put you up to a joke, did not get the term from me. It is my label for an insect whom I call He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned-In-My-Presence, reduced to He-Who for brevity’s sake. I have an annoying relation who styles him Etcetera, derived from a variant, He-Who-Shall-Not-Etcetera. He is known as such in Haute-Navarre, and nowhere else on earth. For me, this was the proof. You are a Sensitive indeed.

Come to Paris! But first reinvent yourself. A purple and yellow fantasy will not go there. The striped wagon, banners flying, that wretched music! It does well enough, I suppose, in the sticks. Not, I assure you, on the Rue des ___. Revise your atrocious costume. Tasteful, expensive, most of all, dignified, do with gentry. Don’t try to be a fashion plate. Leave that to your patrons.

Spare no expense! Refit your confederates also, that you be not seen to consort with rag-pickers. I make it my business to set you up in style. When you are a going concern, repay me by throwing a percentage my way. This is the deal I have with one who is grown a bit grand. She requires my endorsement no longer. She balks at paying my fee. I made her and I can break her. In you I have found her replacement.

When you are ready, enter Paris. Set up as you do, at a festival, and wait. Someone in my service will discover you, for I do not frequent street fairs, normally. I realize that you must strike a balance, continuing to cater to simples until you find your footing in Le Tout Paris, but, please, do so with less mustard. Let your look be mysterious, yes, but, please, no turbans, no yard-long sleeves. The tassels, too, must disappear. Tassels at your waist, on your sleeve, off the hem of your peplum, it is too much! Add a foot-high cap with a tasseled peak and you would make an admirable Polichinelle. That is certainly not what we want.

Begin the process of reinvention. I enclose an item sufficient to foot the bill for a bold refurbishment.

My sincere regards,
Corisande, Countess of Guiche

Mama, after a shocked perusal, reads the note to the hushed table. An emerald, bundled within the carefully folded and sealed single sheet of paper, has tumbled out onto the table.

How does a woman who supposedly lives on a shoe-string allowance, so that she is forced to scrounge monies as she may, how does she come to give away an emerald? Let’s hope that Mama is too dazzled by the gift to wonder over it.

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How do we reform Mama’s, shall we say, zestful way with dress, without hurting her feelings? asked Sly. She loves the gypsy-wench look. At her age, the off-the-shoulder, rose behind the ear thing is ludicrous. Well, that’s our Mama. A five-foot-one bundle of fun. But it won’t tickle funny-bones in Paris.

Pedro sighs. Mama, and tasteful, my mind can’t put it together. Can we repackage her as a Polish nobility, down on her luck? That would explain a lot. No one has worse taste than a Pole, but for maybe a Russian. Her father was Polish. She speaks it, a bit. And Poles tend to be raucous. And drink too much. Just like our Mama.

She’s a character, all right, agrees the cat. By the way, Polish aristocracy is raised to speak French. No one will wonder that she doesn’t speak Polish. They’ll wonder that she does.

She’ll be a Princess, I think, continues Pedro. The Princess P______ski. Cheerful insouciance may be her personal style, but it does not do for a Princess _______ski, who would be colorful, to a degree, but elegant, and haughty, straight of spine, indicative of years of drills in comportment, resulting in a graceful carriage, evocative of an enchanted youth of grand balls and summer sojourns to seaside spas, testament to her determination not to forget who she is, or, rather, was.

This is not an attack on Mama’s fondness for flounce and filigree and ribbon rosettes. The woman is a walking sampler for every fad of the last twenty years. But she understands that one dresses for a role. We may safely assume that while Mama is eager to storm Paris, she’s also intimidated. She’ll take direction. She’s noticed that I have an eye for style.

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The proposal to scrap a safe routine of provincial stops and to draw up a bold new course was a scary proposition for all concerned. Mama talked it up, in part to bolster her own courage. Papa Stan had full faith in his wife’s cunning. And, who doesn’t long to see Paris before they die? He’d see it, and not from the gutter. A taste of the high life, a fine apartment, a carriage, a butler, probably, all part of the deal. Mama occupied with appointments, her waiting room packed, he’d have plenty of time to kick up his heels. The theaters. The bistros. A gentleman of leisure, at loose ends, can get into a lot of trouble in a place like Paris.

The proposal was divisive and for a time threatened the destruction of a long-standing association of friends and colleagues. An exciting but terrifying opportunity had been set before them. When push came to shove, they had to face their limitations. They were an unsophisticated lot, Paris, a glamorous metropolis. The prospect of disgrace was disturbingly real.

They debated the matter for weeks, until the nay-sayers were finally cajoled into a reluctant assent. A few of the acts – no one of irreplaceable importance – departed, aggrieved. One tumbler, on the run from the law, packed up his gear and fled. The remainder, their spirits buoyed by the promise of a make-over, new costumes, restored equipment, tip-top eats on a regular basis, all thanks to the generous gift of one who had taken a liking to their Mama, put their doubts aside. They had no choice. The circus was not a democracy. The owners stood firm in their decision. But it was not a selfish decision. Mama believed it to be in the best interest of all.

The emerald must be converted into coinage. But for a gypsy to approach a jeweler with an item of oustanding value would result in either the police being called, or an absurdly low figure being offered for fenced goods. The letter took care of that.

A perfumed note, beautifully written (Sly spent hours on it) by a Countess, relation to the foremost family of the area, a lady well known to be obsessed with Prognosticators, of whom this odd figure, with her garish half-moon earrings and her pentagram-embroidered cloak, was surely an example, sealed the deal. The man dared not try to gyp a vulnerable seller of a legitimate gift, be reported to the family from whom she had obtained it, and end alienating his best customers. Mama walked away with a box of gold and silver coins and with a letter of credit, drawn on the man’s bank in Paris, for the remainder.

The wagons got a new coat of paint. The props were refurbished or replaced. Mama, with Pedro at her side to advise her, danced into every exquisite emporium they passed. The reaction she got! Imagine a disreputable-looking woman and a ragged youngster charging into your tony establishment and demanding to see your top genius and your best goods. Jaws dropped. Underlings hovered anxiously, until a manager emerged to take charge. Respectable custom migrated toward the door. In one shop, politely ignored, Mama took it upon herself to infringe on a cordoned off area, where bolts of fabric were stacked on shelves. The police were called.

By now Mama, preparing for a role by living it, was well into the creation of a character. To tip-toe timidly into a shop, lay your money on the counter to prove you could pay, and allow yourself to be led to a back room lest you drive away trade, was not for her. She was, after all, a Princess. She was demanding, and difficult. Is this really the best you have? I see I must betake myself elsewhere. If she thought she was being talked down to, you were dead meat.

No one wanted to deal with her. Did Mama get the message? Did she give up? Not Mama. She knew what she wanted: nothing short of the best. She’d never get another chance like this. Why wouldn’t she have taken an easier path? Ditch the show, the husband too? Sold the emerald and lived it up solo, without Stani’s aggravation? She’d considered it. Papa wasn’t called Louse for nothing. Dragging him to Paris was like introducing a fox into a henouse. He was mean; he belittled her. She’d been damn handsome at sixteen but since then she’d put on weight. So what? He’d been a rock-hard muscle-man once. She didn’t slam him over a flabby stomach and sagging biceps. In terms of the show, he was no great help. She ought to have dumped him long ago, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. God knows why. Habit, probably. You know how it goes.

Furthermore, she’d grown up in the merry ensemble. It had been organized and managed by her father. It was the only home she’d ever known. These fools were her family. They’d played together, as children. She was godmother to every newborn. She couldn’t betray them. She might daydream, but it went no farther. She’d worry over them to her dying day.

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Mama, said Pedro, let me find you a tailor. The French are the masters, yes, but the Spanish are not greatly their inferiors, and I hear of a Spanish woman in the Place d’ ___________ who does lovely work. Let me approach her. I will explain the situation, I am quite well-spoken in my native tongue. I’ll smooth the way.

Just what situation do you propose to explain? demanded Mama.

Why, that a displaced Polish aristocrat, until lately sunk into genteel poverty, has come into an inheritance, and would restore herself head to toe, so that she may reenter society. She is a proud woman, and very sensitive about her background. Her late father, a dissolute, squandered his fortune on luxury-loving mistresses and bad investments. Do not attempt to extract the story, it is too painful for her. If the lady’s behavior seems to be at odds with your conception of high rank, remind yourself that while she has led an unconventional life, her name is of the finest.

An appointment was arranged, an inspection of samples, and the taking of measurements. The Spanish tailor turns out to be a lovely woman, about Mama’s age, with her own tale of woe. She too has known better days. That she feels a deep sympathy for the new customer is clear from the start.

Mama has her heart set on at least one purple ensemble, but is talked into pearl grey with purple piping, purple cuffs, a purple collar to set off her still beautiful complexion, purple gloves, hose and booties, and an amusing purple hat. When she got a look in the full-length mirror at the final fitting, she gave her wholehearted approval for whatever else the tailor might recommend. Never in her wildest imagination had she hoped to look so smart. She grew an inch, on the spot, from a new pride in her appearance. Six outfits were ordered, with accessories. Small clothes, underwear of silk and lace, was personalized with a monogram. Nightgowns, was it possible that sleepwear could be so chic? – were provided. Dainty embroidered satin slippers, for lounging on a daybed, or skimming across polished floors, were added to a trousseau worthy of a society bride. Ruffled bed-jackets to protect bare shoulders from draughts, hose with filigree at the ankle, capes, long and short, a greatcoat, for winter days dashing from shop to shop on grand boulevards. What is missing is evening wear. A mystic, even a celebrated one, is a tradeswoman. She will not be found at balls. Her evenings will be spent at home, or at quiet dinner parties with close clients. No gowns, Mama told the woman, at least until I get a peek at what is worn in Paris.

Was the dame nuts? What did she need monogramed undies for? And dyed to match shoes? Ruffled bed-jackets, heavily worn and a pain to launder? All those little extras, they add up.

A German director, years ago, costumed actors for a film. The Emperor’s best troops, drawn from the top families, would be expected to conduct themselves with great dignity. The wardrobe included expensive silk underwear. A studio big-wig blew his top: Silk shorts? Let them furnish their own beneaths. Who’ll know? The director stood his ground: the actors will know. If one feels entitled, yes, down to his silk unmentionables, he shows it. It affects his bearing, the way he holds a fork, everything. Mama was of the same mind. She was a Method actor before there was a Method.

Mama is set. What of the others? Does she skimp with her employees? Not on your life. She must nurture them. She must prepare them to face the future without her. She is the brains of the business. She’s the one who deals with officials. While there was no one to fill her shoes, she will give them their best chance to flourish without her. Not a word of her ultimate objective was to be leaked. She would not announce her intention until they are able to accept it.

She couldn’t leave them in the lurch after all they’d done for her. She was the tout, the shill, front and center in every town square, banging the drum for attractions presented farther afield, in addition to grabbing a few bucks herself. If she had a boffo draw to replace her, it would make the break a whole lot easier.

Assistants were sent to measure the troupe, books of swatches under their arms. Mama and the modiste spent hours sketching and discussing. Colorful outfits, sturdy fabrics, three changes for each performer, yardage for repairs, additional buttons, threads, ribbons, tassels, collars – collars disintegrate first – every advantage, anything she could think of which would give her the courage to eventually walk away. She had high hopes for Paris. The moment would come when she must cut loose. Pedro was a bright boy. Perhaps he could be trained to take over.

Pedro and his cat came in for extra-special treatment. Mama liked what she had seen thus far, of his intelligence, of his manner, and of his ability to tickle a crowd. Papa had nearly let him slip away. He’d been on the verge of turning down a simple act, a trained cat, sure to please young children, and young children are accompanied by parents.

The boy, a well-behaved young man, one might even say courtly, an odd term to apply to a homeless waif, he would work cheap, for room and board. Board, that was the sticking point, where to house the cutie-pie. Living space was tight already. The expense of a new wagon is out of the question, at least until he’s proven himself. There was room in the twin’s wagon, if they evicted those dogs. They wouldn’t be thrilled having to share their living quarters. Too bad!

Mama, you should know, when her husband had been about to send him packing, had been the one to step in and hire Pedro on the spot.

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  1. Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the country of Navarre did exist in this period.