Fiction

ALL FOR THE LOVE OF MARIA

It's no use trying to describe her beauty. But it drove the Baron to an ingenious crime...and even farther than that

RONALD R. SMITH November 26 1955
Fiction

ALL FOR THE LOVE OF MARIA

It's no use trying to describe her beauty. But it drove the Baron to an ingenious crime...and even farther than that

RONALD R. SMITH November 26 1955

ALL FOR THE LOVE OF MARIA

Fiction

It's no use trying to describe her beauty. But it drove the Baron to an ingenious crime...and even farther than that

RONALD R. SMITH

THE BARON brought a few crumpled carnations out of his pocket and rubbed them thoughtfully into his white, black and tan beard. He liked the scent to rise to his nostrils. The Norman sunlight was bland; strolling girls in bright dresses glowed in it as if they had been painted by Monet. Across the square the patron of the Anneau d’Or took an aperitif with his customers or. the terrasse. An old woman with white hair cut like a page boy’s looked out of an upper window of a fifteenth-century house with a checkerboard facade.

“Beauty,” the baron said, “cannot l>e fixed with words. The important part is inevitably left out. No use trying then to descril>e the beauty of that actress of genius, Maria Delorme. Say simply that it was ineffable. Add that it drove men mad. Perfectly. A young Parisian, nephew of a minister of marine, who failed to win her favor returned home and shot his valet de chambre. A frenzy. A Russian prince, equally unfortunate, took off in a red silk balloon and was never seen again. History, that, not legend.”

Baron Louis de Dantiac L’Orgeuilleux crossed his legs carefully and the flapping sole of his right Palm Beach shoe slapped drily against the upper. The original owner of his pea-green gabardine suit had been a younger and far lesser man. The baron’s large and noble head reduced the little black Homburg perched on it to absurdity.

I had known the baron for five days. He touted for a more than shady “Dancing” called Chez Bobbie. He did it without conviction, badly, nervously pushing his little black hat around his great dome. He felt unworthy of himself. It needed tact on my part and an effort on his to restore his naturally courtly personality. He also showed up his pride by refusing a drink. The appearance of a well-known film actress had thrown him into a reminiscent mood. She wore a pair of scarlet footmen’s breeches. Darkly goggled, torso inclined forward, knees rather bent, she plodded past the bench on which the baron and I were sitting as though she were crossing a snow-covered steppe. The baron did not reply to my acid observation but he was naturally reminded by contrast of the exquisite Maria.

I remember that evening (the baron said) particularly well. A Paris delicately grey. A grisaille. Tender. We had l>een to a reception at the Imperial Russian Embassy, Maria and I. Embassy receptions were brilliant then. I am told they have become rather mercantile now. Unhappily at this reception there was a woman with a very strong aura which Maria felt to be inimical to her. Maria was acutely sensitive to hostile vibrations. This woman was undoubtedly pretty in a Junoesque manner. Wife of a rich American. He was concerned with pig meat, canning it perhaps, I don’t know. Strange as it may seem, great sums of money can apparently be made from this activity. En tout cas, the woman exploded with jewels. Her presence was intolerable to Maria. We left.

Maria then lived on the He Saint-Louis in a charming old house. One of those designed by Ixjvau, I Ixdieve. We returned there in Maria’s carriage.

A l>eautiful woman reclining on a tiger skin. She has released her hair her lion’s mane as she often called it. She smokes an Egyptian cigarette. Do Continued on page 41

Continued on page 41

All for the Love of Maria

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 17

you see that? The curving line of a cheek, a hip, let them deviate by a millimetre and they are commonplace. You cannot describe lines like that where a millimetre means everything. Remember, at that time the tiger skin had not been reduced to a mockery by pseudoromantic writers. A little buhl table stood beside Maria. On it a silver cigarette box; two pipes in engraved silver for the smoking of opium with their needles beside them; a small jar in decorated porcelain with an almond-shaped flame like a gem. But at that period of Maria’s life the pipes were always cold. Addiction to the drug destroys the complexion. Worse, it dries up what to Maria was the wellspring of life, the capacity to love.

Maria reclined there, smoking her cigarette, without speaking. I sat at her feet among cushions on a white Chinese mat respecting her silence. She was unhappy, therefore I was unhappy. It is the fate, 1 know, of beautiful women with acute sensibilities, to suffer from an insatiable yearning. It is, I believe, a desire for the Absolute; it is a longing to fuse themselves with, to merge themselves into, some absolute perfection, unchanging, unchangeable, outside time, in the Eternal Now.

WHAT could I do for that? I tried to divert her. Two days earlier she had given a second glance at a diamond collar in Gurau’s in the Rue de la Paix. It was a pretty thing worth at the present-day value of the franc, perhaps five million francs. A few fragments of compressed carbon, however glittering, are a poor substitute for the Absolute. But a pretty bauble is always a pleasure. I asked Maria if I might have the pleasure of getting it for her.

Silence. An air of absence. Had she even heard me? She frowned, slowly recalled her vagrant mind.

"A dubious pleasure, Dantiac. And one that at least four of my friends would be prepared to dispute you.”

It was true, alas. There was nothing more to be said. Maria continued to watch the lilac smoke spiral up from her cigarette towards the gilded Cordovan leather of the ceiling. She slowly turned her head.

"Louis. Louis, you shall steal it for me.”

I did not understand.

"The collar, Louis. You shall steal the collar for me. Will you steal it for me, Louis?”

"But Maria . . .” Certainly I was a little crass.

She shook her head impatiently. "Ah, the generosity of men who squander the money they never earned, who expect a woman to overflow with gratitude because they have undertaken the hazards and fatigues of adding their signatures to a draft on their banks.”

"You shall have the collar within twenty-four hours, Maria. The newspapers will tell you the story.”

She crushed out her cigarette.

"I forbid you to make a fool of yourself, Louis,” she said sharply. "I am a stupid, selfish, capricious woman. It is unpardonable that you do not tell me so.”

"I shall steal the collar, Maria.”

'T forbid you.”

Ten minutes later she said: "But

you must not be caught, Louis. Promise me you will not be caught.”

"I shall not be caught, Maria.”

"Dear Louis. Dear, dear Louis.”

It was a cool—almost cold—clear night now. I walked home. Everything seemed a little strange. Even the blunt tow’ers of Notre Dame, the spiked dome of the Palais de Justice silhouetted against the night sky— those familiar objects—had a strange new aspect. The Seine flowed with a silky furtiveness under the bridges as I walked along the Quai des Tuileries; I was living then in a modern apartment just off the Champs Elysées at the upper end near the Place de l’Etoile. Bah, I thought, when it is all over I shall make a large anonymous donation to the Little Sisters of the Poor.

As I passed the Obelisk a newspaper driven by the light breeze halted at my feet, unfurled itself long enough for me to read the headlines in the lamplight: "Another Anarchist Outrage:

Assassination at Neuilly.” Having like a bee done its work of fertilization it passed on. I had not had an idea in my head; now I had half a dozen in j embryo. At that time, of course, the | anarchists were causing alarm by their repeated outrages, robberies and graj tuitous acts of violence.

Next morning I went to see Jorge j Pez. He lived in a little pavilion in the garden of an untenanted house near Père Lachaise. The caretaker of the house, who was infatuated by Jorge’s curious ways and ideas, fed him. 1 had met Jorge at the house of Philippe Bombardier, then a notable writer but now forgotten. Jorge was a Spaniard who had fled from Spain | after trouble with the police in Madrid, i He had a talent for making ingenious little infernal machines. But he was j not an anarchist. It was simply that \ the complacency of society—all of it, i the working classes included—filled him with irritation which he soothed by trying to spread a little alarm and confusion.

He was a fat little man with a pear-shaped head and a saffron skin a little pockmarked. He suffered from asthma. He laughed—wheezily, cautiously—a good deal but his little black eyes were always tired, infinitely tired.

I gave him the silk hat I had brought j with me and told him what I wanted.

I told him it was for a joke. He took a sip of marc—he had a glass of milk and a glass of marc in front of him j from which he sipped alternately. "Ah yes,” he said sadly. "1 like jokes.”

I drove back into the centre, dismissed my cab at the Trinité, and walked to Gerstein’s, the theatrical costumiers, who were then in business near the Gare Saint-Lazare. There is a frigid, prosy attitude about modern criminals that displeases me. In those days criminals were romantics; they ¡ brought panache to their activities. I was of my period. From old Gerstein j I bought a small neat beard and mustache—rather like that affected by the | elder of the Goncourt brothers, you know—a bottle of spirit gum, a bottle of stain and a bottle of stain remover.

I was beardless at that time, rather inclined to dandyism—not foppishness, no, no—the cold, austere dandyism recommended by Baudelaire, the poet.

I lunched abstemiously at Bertini’s, taking only a little light wine. Then I went to the station myself under one of the arches of the arcade in the Rue de Rivoli. Maria was rehearsing the role of Iphigénie in the play by Racine.

I wished to see her once more before the moment of action. She went by in a closed carriage. She always used a closed carriage, whatever the weather, when she went to rehearsal. I caught only a glimpse of her. She sat well back but very upright, her face rather tense and pale, taking no notice of the animation of the streets. It was always

the same—-though in this instance I liked to think that a little of her gravity was on my behalf—when Maria went to the theatre. She was no longer a woman of fantasies and caprices: she became grave, humble towards her art, profoundly dedicated. As I watched her carriage disappear among the traffic I felt not a potential criminal but a man about to engage in an act of gallantry as a tribute—a trifling and unworthy tribute—to this stern and beautiful woman. There was certainly an admixture of folly in the view.

I took a cab and drove again out to Père Lachaise. I found Jorge drinking Tarragona with the caretaker. He was a little drunk. Rut he had executed my commission. Child’s play, he said.

"It will make a deafening explosion, give off a blinding flash, and emit large quantities of smoke?” I asked.

"You must press here,” Jorge said, pointing inside the silk hat to the head of a brass screw which projected through a disk of cardboard cut from a carton, "press here, and in exactly one hundred and twenty seconds you will have your joke. What have you got in your box?”

"Another little toy, Jorge.”

"It’s a beard from Gerstein’s. I’ve seen a box tike that before.” He put his finger along his nose. "Not a word, old friend.”

He did not wish to accept any payment—how he lived I don’t know—but finally he said: "Give it to the care-

taker. He is a foolish man. He is ruining himself buying me delicacies.”

1 DROVE back to my apartment and sent Bienvenu, my valet, on an errand: he would have been hurt to know I was in my dressing room without calling for his assistance. The stain was easy but the beard presented some difficulties and the gum stung on my newly shaved cheeks. How bright and frank and candid my eyes looked against my darkened skin. It was a I little ironical.

In a narrow street which connects the Rue de la Paix with the Avenue I de l’Opéra there used to be a small i hôtel meublé called the Hôtel des Etran! gers. It was there that a dark, bearded man called and took a room, honestly I paying a week in advance. He wore I a long black overcoat and a silk hat. According to his card he was Señor Martino Halloran of Rio de Janeiro. I chose to be Martino Halloran because he was a friend of mine, a coffee grower, and I had by chance several of his cards. Also it pleased me to masquerade as a Brazilian; they are frequently men of vivacity and spirit. Martino

was then at the other side of the world so he could not be implicated in the crime. I left a small suitcase in my room.

Dusk was turning to twilight when I returned to the Rue de la Paix. The lamps were lit, the air softly vaporous, a little chill.

When I entered there were seven other people in Gurau’s apart from the three or four assistants; three couples and a man who looked like—and I later learned, was—an American. Two things I recall about Gurau’s; the large cabbage-rose pattern on the claret carpet and a large case of silver plate which I believe was English Queen Anne.

The assistant who attended to me was an elegant young man—he would soon grow fat, I’m afraid—of about my own age. He wore an immensely ornamental mustache curled at the ends like a lion tamer’s.

"With the greatest pleasure, Señor Halloran,” he said, glancing at the card I had presented.

The window in which the collar was displayed was barred on the outside and locked on the inside. The lion tamer unlocked the small door with a key which he had fetched from the back premises somewhere. As soon as he reached inside I took off my hat and gloves. As he approached bearing the collar on a blue velvet cushion I placed my hat on the far end of the counter—there were three counters in the place—and pressed my gloves very firmly into it. I felt the screw yield. From hours and days time was now measured for me in seconds. One hundred and twenty. The transition was momentarily a little difficult to accommodate one’s self to. A curious image came into my mind. A piano keyboard; the keys starting at the treble end and going down one by one of their own accord, the note deepening each time . . .

"... twenty carats the central stone . . . the cold fire of the true blue-white diamond, the purity of which . . .” The lion tamer was blending technicalities with commercial poetry.

I could smell the rich spicy odor of the American’s cigar, hear the delightful twittering of the ladies, respectfully muted—a jeweler’s seems to inspire awe in the same way as a church. I regretted their presence. A sudden fear struck me. Suppose Jorge had had the amusing idea of putting a lethal charge in the hat? He was capable.

"Pardon.” I went and placed my hat on the floor behind the thick mahogany end panel of the counter.

Disconcerted for a moment the lion

tamer pulled himself together.

"See, Monsieur Halloran, how fine is the edge of the girdle . . .”

I had the collar in my brown hand —how pink the nails looked—and the lion tamer was just offering me a loupe I with which to inspect the fine edge of the girdle—or as much of it as could be seen for the setting—when Jorge’s machine exploded.

Indirect though it was, the flash was superb. I was half blinded. The displaced air slapped me on the cheek.

¡ The sound was flat, vicious.

"Anarchists! Anarchists!” I was ! in excellent voice.

But the lion tamer had already gone, taking with him, by some aberration, the velvet cushion. The doorway was I jammed with fleeing clients and assistants. The ladies were emitting pretty little squeals. I started to follow, thrusting the collar into my pocket. Suddenly the place was lighted hy a golden glow. I looked back. I expected smoke. Instead a graceful fountain of stars spouted hissing and crackling upwards. Jorge had been unable to resist it. Damn Jorge. But it was such a charming spectacle. It flashed in the mirrors, showcases, silver plate.

I could not help smiling. But the time was not apt for aesthetic appreciation. The door was now free. I made for it. There was another flash. Brilliant. But this time it seemed to be in my very head. All the bells in Paris—and they are numerous—began to jangle. Then—chaos and Old Night.

It had heen my intention to run outside followed by billowing smoke still yelling "Anarchists.” I knew the mere sound of the ominous word would scatter the pedestrians on the crowded pavements. I intended to scatter with them, put on the opera-hat I had compressed under my coat—a gentleman could not appear without a hat

in the street in those days without arousing comment—return to the Hôtel des Etrangers which was little more than a minute away and remove my Brazilian personality. Then I would go down to the Café de la Paix on the corner to drink a glass or two of brandy and listen to the gossip which would manifestly be about the outrage at Gurau’s.

I am confident that I could have succeeded in spite of Jorge’s joke. Alas, there was an unforeseen factor: the

attachment of Americans to their mothers. As soon as he got outside the American realized that he had left behind his cigar case on the counter. I had seen it. It was made of silver but intrinsically of little value. It was however a present from his mother on his twenty-fifth birthday—he was now a man of fifty or so—and he was determined that neither explosions nor anarchists were going to separate him from it. He rushed blindly back into the jeweler’s. He had lost his hat and his glasses in the melee. He was bald. He had a head of marble. And I an ordinary chin of flesh and blood. Tbe contest was not even. I was unconscious, I was told, for not less than four minutes.

The baron opened and closed the large safety pin which linked together the front of his pea-green jacket. He was silent for some time. Then he said:

"Maria was splendid. She stood up in court—Oh, how like Portia with her clear, young voice. The judge was a sapless little man who understood nothing but the law. Maria addressed herself to the jury. She told them the prosecution had misled them. 'The guilty one does not stand in the dock,’ she said. 'The miserable egotistical woman now addressing you is the criminal.’ She spoke for more than

ten minutes. They simply did not dare to stop her. She ended by threatening them. If I were given a prison sentence, she told them, she would abandon her career and withdraw into the country and live the life of a recluse. It caused a great stir in the court and in the country.”

The baron sighed. "But they could not forgive me for having introduced the hateful word anarchist into the affair. That, I believe, was my worst offense.” He pushed his little Homburg over hos eyes.

"They gave me three years.”

And again he was silent.

"And of course Maria did withdraw into the country and live the life of a recluse,” I said uncharitably.

"Oh yes.” He looked up into the blue Norman sky speckled with neat little white clouds like fish scales. "Oh yes. But Maria was a woman. A woman in the full sense of that momentous and protean word. How could Maria live without love? Could Beethoven live without composing? She hid herself in the country for more than two weeks. Then she married a Hungarian landowner domiciled in France. He bought the collar for her. He was a splendid horseman, I believe.”

THE baron appeared to have exhausted himself. He slumped in his seat. I offered him another cigarette. He could not resist tabac blond. He sat wich the cigarette drooping dangerously near his beard. Obviously I would have liked to congratulate him on his good luck. Three years in jail —with time off for good conduct— quite evidently was a trifle compared with what life with Maria would have been. But he would not have taken it kindly. He looked a weary old clown with his pinched nostrils and pouched eyes drawn down at the outer corners as though by the weight of his beard. That his "crime” had been farcically inept never seemed to strike him. The bogus delights of actresses on tiger skins surrounded by opium pipes—the most romantic modern schoolboy in his imaginings would think that a bit too thick—still held their charms for him, however academic his interest in them might have become . . .

"Pssst. Pssst.”

We both turned around. A plump young man with sore eyes, wearing a bright blue suit, was standing behind us.

"Madame Bobbie wants you. She’s over at the grocer’s.”

The baron dropped his cigarette, fumbled agitatedly with his hat, thrust himself off the bench, excused himself, and manoeuvring his flapping sole waddled off across the sunlit square. He had to take discreet little strides because of the tightness of his trousers. It did not add to his dignity. The youth looked at me speculatively and then drifted indecisively away. He had the air of being a professional colleague of the baron’s.

The baron’s employer was a tall woman, gaunt just this side of emaciation, with dark, mahogany-colored hair, obviously dyed. She was perhaps forty, perhaps fifty. Her skin—her stick-like arms were bare—seemed to absorb the sunlight without being touched by it. Her lips started moving vehemently long before the baron reached her. Clearly she was not satisfied with him. He stood listening, his head bowed to the storm. Courteously he held out his hand for the shopping basket. She thrust it at him and they moved away. The baron toddled cautiously beside her. his beard crushed on his chest, still patiently listening to the torrent of words.

A shadow fell across my face.

It was cast by the plump young man. Blinking his pink eyelids and pursing his fleshy little lips he watched the baron and Madame Bobbie as they disappeared into an alley closed to wheeled traffic by a worn metal post in the middle.

"Did he tell you he was a baron?” The plump young man’s manner was intimate to the point of cosiness.

"It came out in the course of the conversation.”

He turned round and leaned with his forearms on the back of the seat, his face rather too close to mine. He had been eating sardines.

"If I was a baron I wouldn’t have that old chipie kicking me around, would you?”

"No.”

"I don’t have her kicking around me as it is. But she’s a tough old sorcière. She’s a foreigner. Mind you, she thinks she’s as good as he is, and better. She’s always telling the tale. Her people were rich, lousy with pognon. Until the crash.” He laughed. His mouth was like a gross cherub’s. "Foreigners always tell you that. Nobody can prove nothing. But she can put on the marquise all right when she wants to.”

"Why doesn’t he clear out?”

He decided to join me on the seat. He was careful about the creases in his trousers.

"You’re asking me something there. They were in Paris during the occupation. She got the old gaga into a black-market combination. Naturally he didn’t make two sous for himself. And naturally he got caught. Lucky he didn’t end up with a bullet in his hide. He went straight back to her when he got out.”

"He’s not married to her or anything, is he?”

"Married to her! He’s twenty or thirty years older than she is.” He laughed again; a surprising baritone laugh quite different from his speaking voice which was rather plummy. "He’s as much married to her as an old yard dog would be married to her. He’s a sort of old yard dog crossed with an odd-job man.”

He started to offer me a cigarette and found to his annoyance that he had run out. He accepted one of mine. Before lighting it he examined it and expressed regret that it was not corktipped.

"He couldn’t be a relative of hers, I suppose?”

"I tell you she’s a foreigner.” He tapped his cigarette elegantly with his forefinger.

"She’s Hungarian. Her old man was Hungarian—race horse owner. Her mother was French, though.” He laughed. "A famous French actress. she says. But she wouldn’t be related to a baron, would she? Mark you, the old chipie might be a princess the way he treats her . . .”

He interrupted himself, pointing at someone across the square.

"There’s Be-belle. Ah, la jolie garce! She’s owed me five hundred francs for four weeks now. Don’t go. Back in a minute.”

He crossed the square, fatly brisk. A small, slender blonde with her hair done in a horse’s tail was looking into a pork shop window. He caught her arm. She started, then laughed, patting his round cheek soothingly.

I withdrew. It was time for lunch in any case. And during lunch I promised myself the pleasure of thinking a number of disobliging and cynical things about the vagaries of love. Providing the girl with the red-gold hair wasn’t lunching with her aunt at the next table again. If she was it might become a little difficult to concentrate on other things. ★