Clad in Edwardian finery, Countess Aurelia was taking her usual morning walk.
The morning itself, although the Chaillot section of Paris gleamed in its sunshine, was not usual at all. For one thing, evil men had gathered at a table on the Café Francis terrace. For a second, a youth named Roderick was about to attempt suicide.
But the Countess moved with angular grace through her own private world.
Because of this, they called her a madwoman. But no name could have disturbed her less. She was secure in the knowledge that every friend in Chaillot loved her - the Ragpicker, the Waiter, the Sewer Man, the Deaf Mute. And, of course, the stray animals.
Strolling along, she paused to water doorstep flowers from a window-washer’s pail. Cutting through the park, she encountered her dear friend Constance, the Madwoman of Passy, who walked her imaginary little dog Dickie. On a park bench, as they proceeded, they found Gabrielle, the Madwoman of St. Sulpice. Gabrielle was enjoying the sun and exchanging smiles with a dapper old man who stood behind the shield of a nearby pissoir.
The Countess was inclined to chide her innocent crony on making such acquaintances. Everyone knew that in these modern times men had lost all sense of decency.
But Constance whispered an admonition. “Must you speak about sex in front of Gabrielle, Aurelia? Gabrielle is a v-i-r-g-i-n.”
“She can’t be that innocent!” the Countess sniffed. “After all she keeps canaries.”
Going on alone, she arrived at last on the balmy terrace of the Café Francis.
Here a choice table always was reserved for her. On her way to it, she paused to greet her good friends, the Peddler and the Juggler. Like many of the so-called misfits of Chaillot, these two generally took the sun here. As she sat, the pretty young waitress Irma also hurried over to ask her pleasure.
From her table, the Countess could watch all the happy, shabby, amicable life which constantly passed and repassed through the square. She smiled up at Irma.
“Are my bones ready, dear? And my gizzard?”
“I don’t think there’ll be much today, Countess. Except - wait - that man who is just finishing over there. I’m sure he is leaving some giblets on his plate.”
“I have a home for giblets. The tomcat who lives under the bridge dotes on them.”
While waiting for the giblets to be wrapped in brown paper, she went to make inquiries of the café’s Barman. “Have you found it yet? My feather boa?”
“Not yet, Countess.” The Barman boxed politely. “Three scarves. No boa.”
“But, it’s five years since I lost it! A boa nine feet long doesn’t just vanish!” she protested.
The Barman and her favorite Waiter still were commiserating with her about the boa when she first noticed the gentlemen at the largest table. Each of them looked exceedingly important. A General in uniform. A Reverend with collar reversed. A Russian who could be no less than a Commissar. A Stockbroker, to judge by his leather case.
And, especially, one who would stand out anywhere as a Chairman of the Board.
Their heads were close together and they were talking avidly, excitedly, although they kept their voices low. They had champagne glasses before them. But the glasses seemed to hold only tap water. Now and again, a man would sip and savor and nod agreement.
The Countess could not have said why, yet a cold chill rippled over her.
But what about the youth named Roderick . . .
He was a student, Roderick, and therefore almost by definition a rebel. He lived with a rich uncle who was a most successful Prospector. And this very morning, having taken part in a street riot which the police had broken up with clubs and tear gas, he had repaired to his uncle’s bathroom to wash away the blood and sweat.
Catching him in the act, the Prospector was incensed. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m bleeding to death, Uncle.”
“How did it happen? I demand to know what you were doing! On my money!”
Roderick was, of course, an idealist. “Wealth like yours is acquired through the blood and toil of others. I want my generation to have a voice!”
“Don’t dress it up,” the Prospector sneered. “You want to get rid of the Establishment and make a new Establishment. They always seem better until they prove the same.”
He strode to a cabinet, unlocked it, and drew forth a suitcase. “Here! You wish to save mankind? This is the instrument! The means to justify the end!”
“What is it, Uncle?” Curious, Roderick studied the innocent-seeming bag.
“If you must clean out a sewer, you get your hands dirty. Inside this suitcase is the very latest type of plastic bomb. In Room 22 in the Palais de Chaillot - right now, at this very minute - there’s a meeting going on which can decide the world’s future. A group of men are planning to crush China with nuclear weapons even at risk of starting World War III. If you want to do Mankind a favor, blow those monsters up! Then come back to me and we’ll talk about your fine principles.”
Within an hour of that touching domestic scene, young Roderick was on his nervous way to the Palais de Chaillot - and toting a small suitcase with him.
The Prospector, having kissed his wife goodbye, headed for the Café Francis. Here he had an appointment with a busty blonde. But it was not mere lechery which motivated him. The Prospector had very definite schemes at work inside his head.
*Well before the Countess’s arrival, the important gentlemen the Chairman had invited to form the Board of his new corporation circled their terrace table. He addressed them.
The corporation needed an impressive name, now that it had acquired a variety of reassuring tycoons to adorn its official letterhead. An impressive name was always needed. It persuaded the little people to invest their life savings.
“A name,” summarized the Chairman, “to inspire confidence like a cathedral.”
“I don’t want to be indiscreet,” hesitated the General, “But I was just wondering Mr. Chairman. What exactly is the purpose of our new corporation?”
“Indiscreet, no. Unique, perhaps. I can’t recall a member of one of my Boards ever asking such a question, General. In answer, I honestly haven’t a faint idea.”
“Do we perhaps intend to manufacture something?
“Businessmen are never guilty of the mistake that novelists make. Novelists always think that when they have found a title they are obliged to write the novel as well. Don’t worry. Have faith in me. We’ll find an answer, sir, right here at this café.”
And, as predicted, they did. The Prospector seated with his blonde had been scanning his fellow lunchers for just a group. And once he had assessed them, he arose and walked up to their table. He addressed the Chairman with complete confidence.
“You need a name for your new corporation, sir? I need a quarter-million.”
“A very proper sum,” approved the Chairman. “But this name for our new venture?”
“International Substrate of Paris, Limited.” It did, indeed, have a ring.
The General blinked. “But, but what does it mean?”
“It means what it says. I am a prospector. And for your new name you need a property. I have one. Here in Paris. Substrate means underground. Oil.”
Even the Chairman was shaken. “Oil? In Paris. Are you certain?”
“I deal only in facts, gentlemen. This oil, you are sitting on it. It’s right under your seats. Chaillot’s earth is soggy with it. Did you ever taste the water?”
Shocked glances were the answer to so nauseous a suggestion. “Good heavens, no!”
“Then, you’ve denied yourselves a real pleasure. Water, gentlemen, is the one substance from which the earth can conceal nothing. Just two days ago,” and the Prospector pointed toward Irma, tending customers nearby,” that girl brought me my first sip of Chaillot water. I trembled like a leaf. My taste buds thrilled to the most exquisite flavor known to man. Petroleum!”
The men at the table ordered glasses and tap water and tasted for themselves. So question, the aftertaste on their tongues was delightfully vile. Oil? Yes, OIL!
“Here I am,” murmured the Prospector, “with the greatest discovery of the age on my hands and the authorities won’t let me drill for it. But I have a plan.”
And he smirked at the thought. For the office of the City Planner - that idiot who had refused him a drilling permit - was Room 22, Palais de Chaillot. By now, with any luck at all, his nephew Roderick would have rid the world of a stumbling block.
These gentlemen here at the table, all obviously influential, could carry great weight in the selection of a new City Planner. Someone far more amenable!
*At precisely noon (if one’s watch agreed with the Palais clocks), young Roderick sped panting across the square with the suitcase still gripped in one clammy hand.
He did not pause as he sprinted past the Café Francis. Straight for the river bridge he headed. Clambering up onto the balustrade, he hurled the suitcase as far from him as his strength permitted. It arched and hit the water.
The shrilling of a gendarme’s whistle was what alerted the patrons on the terrace. As they saw a crowd gathering, they also ran. They discovered a pale young man sprawled limp on the balustrade, with a police sergeant crouching over him.
The Prospector instantly recognized his kinsman. “What’s happened, sergeant?”
“A drowned man.” The sergeant massaged knuckles which just had contacted a jaw.
“But his clothes are dry!” protested someone else among the onlookers.
“He was jumping off the bridge. We had to apply force. Otherwise, he would have dragged us under, too. Now my colleague here will apply artificial respiration.”
“But that’s no use at all for people who drown without water!”
The shuddering detonation of the bomb below them interrupted what might have become a fruitless argument. In view of such unfortunate events, which surely would attract the press, the Board of Directors of International Substrate discreetly scattered to taxis and waiting limousines. A scandal at this point would be tragic.
Having watched this maneuver with interest from the café, through binoculars, Countess Aurelia now saw her friends - the Ragpicker, the Juggler, the Folksinger, and a fluttering Irma - bearing an unconscious young man across the square to a handy bench. As she swept herself up to take charge, bending above the young man, Irma sobbed. “Oh, how beautiful he is! Is he d-d-dead, Countess?”
“Hold my mirror over his mouth.” She produced it. “If it clouds over-”
“It clouds over,” breathed Irma tremulously.
“Then, he’s alive.” The diagnosis was at once borne out by Roderick himself, who opened his eyes and stared straight up into Irma’s face and sighed, “How beautiful!”
The Countess was holding his inert hand. When Roderick attempted to disengage it, she clung fast. “No, no, don’t let go. When you let someone go, you never see them again. I once let Alphonse Bertaut go, and I never saw him again.”
The Sergeant had elbowed alongside. “I want the young man’s name and date of birth.”
“Do you think it’s going to stop him from jumping in the river to tell him the date of his birth?” the Countess demanded. “Put away that silly book, and console him.”
“Console him?” Know her though he did, the Sergeant was flabbergasted.
The Sergeant tried once more. “What was your idea in jumping off that bridge, man?”
“The idea was to land in the river,” said the Countess. “Call him Roderick.”
At this, the young man’s eyes flew open again. “How did you know my name’s Roderick?”
“It’s obvious. Just as Alphonse Bertaut was obviously an Alphonse. People are named for what they are. Continue, Sergeant.
The Sergeant cleared his throat. “You must realize that suicide is a crime against the state, er, Roderick. One taxpaper less. One soldier less for the Army.”
“Sergeant!” The Countess was really exasperated. “Are you a lover of life or a tax collector? Surely you’ve found something worth living for. Tell him what it is. Otherwise, I defy anyone to stop dying on your account.”
“Perhaps,” glared the Sergeant, wounded, “you can do better.”
“Certainly. This is quite simple. In the first place, why should he still want to die when he just has fallen in love with someone who just has fallen in love with him? To be alive is to be very fortunate.” The Countess settled down comfortably to prove her point.
*”Of course, in the morning it doesn’t always feel so gay.” She admitted this much. “Not when you’re taking your hair out of the dresser and your teeth out of the glass. And particularly if you’ve been dreaming that you’re a little girl on a pony looking for strawberries in the woods. But then comes a letter in the morning mail. One you wrote to yourself, giving your schedule for the day. Then, when I have washed in rosewater and put on my pins, rings, brooches, pearls, necklaces, I’m ready to begin again.”
The Countess was doing her best to make the young man see how rich life was.
“After that, everything is pure delight. First, the morning paper. Not these current sheets full of vulgar lies. I always read the Gaulois for March 22, 1919. It’s by far the best. Delightful scandal. Excellent fashion notes. And of course the last-minute bulletin on the death of Leonide Leblanc. She used to live next door. And when I learn of her death every morning it gives me quite a start. To recover from which, Chaillot calls. It is time to dress for my morning walk. That takes much longer without a maid . . .”
Listening to her, Roderick could not quite suppress the warming smile she coaxed to his young-rebel mouth. Especially since, beyond her, he could keep watching Irma.
“Then I begin my rounds! I walk toward the square, blowing kisses to each friend. I have my cats to feed, my dogs to pet, my plants to water. So how does life seem now?”
Roderick returned her clasp on his hand. “It seems marvelous, Countess.”
His Uncle, the Prospector, sidled up and insisted that his nephew be sent home in his charge. But the Deaf Mute had been slipping like a shadow from point to point in the crowd, and now his fingers talked quickly to Irma. She relayed to the Countess the news that the young man’s life would be endangered if he went. So the Countess succeeded in so confusing the Sergeant that presently he led away the protesting Prospector on charges which an hour later neither man would find quite comprehensible.
“What did you do, Roderick?” she asked, once the uncle was gone. “Murder someone?”
“Well, I meant to. I was going to blow up a roomful of warmongers.”
“His uncle lied to him,” Irma explained instantly. “It was a trick. If the bomb had gone off, it would have killed the City Planner.”
Roderick still looked somewhat dazed. “But I’m beginning to understand now. He wanted to destroy the whole city. Not with bombs, but with his machines. They are ready to move in. If he has his way in three months Paris will be a forest of derricks.”
“But what are they looking for? Have they lost something? A boa, perhaps?”
“They are convinced that Paris is sitting on a lake of oil, Countess.”
The Countess frowned. “Suppose it is? Is this any reason to destroy a city?”
“For them, it is. The oil would give them the power to destroy other cities.”
Her puzzlement was so obvious that the Ragpicker turned to the others circled about. “If she only knew! Do you think we all ought to tell her?”
“What?” she demanded. “What are you hiding from me?”
“Nothing, Countess. It is you who are hiding.” The Ragpicker spoke sadly. “The world has changed since the time you knew. Even the people are different. No one is involved with anyone else any more. The world is no longer beautiful. No one is happy.”
The tears in her eyes were brighter than the paste gems in her bracelets. “This is true? The world is not beautiful? The world is not happy? Why wasn’t I told?”
“Because you’ve been dreaming a long time, Countess. And nobody wanted to disturb you. Today, the world is full of faceless people. People who look back at you with gelatine eyes. Once you stop dreaming, you can see them quite clearly. They were here today.”
“But who are these people? What do they do?”
“They do nothing, Countess. They feel nothing, make nothing, give nothing. The poets, the jugglers, the innocents, all are disappearing. The world’s been taken over by the pimps. The rest of us are finished. They want to make us all like them.”
Slowly, behind the teardrops in the Countess’s eyes, anger began to glow. “Are you all cowards? If these men are the cause of the trouble, all we have to do is get rid of them.” She looked about her slowly at each of her old friends.
“Some of us have tried,” Roderick muttered. “They’re too strong. There are too many of them. They have all the power, and they’re greedy for more.”
“If they’re greedy, they’re lost!” And now the Countess was smiling. “I know exactly what to do. By tomorrow night we’ll be free of them! Now, first things first. Irma, is there any kerosene in the kitchen? I shall need a little in a dirty bottle with some mud in it. Next, you, Folksinger, go and tell Madame Josephine that I want her to be at my home tomorrow evening at five o’clock. Give Mademoiselle Gabrielle and Madam Constance the same message. I shall expect you all tomorrow at five, my friends.”
“Delighted!” agreed the Ragpicker. “But what are you going to do?”
“Right now, Roderick is to take me home. He still looks pale, and I have some old Chartreuse there. It should put color back into his heart!”
*Next day, for the first time in years, the Countess Aurelia drastically altered her morning schedule. She paid visits to various impressive spots in the city.
The Stockbroker was notably impressed by her title, even though one could read in his eyes that to him his caller presented an outlandish appearance. He examined the small bottle she had brought him with the greatest of interest.
“And this, er, liquid, you say it comes from under your house?”
“Through the walls of my cellar. It seeps into everything. It inundates me.”
“Incredible!” he marveled. “Of course, I am not qualified to give an expert opinion. But it’s very possible that . . . . Have you told others of your discovery?”
“No, no, no! You are the first.”
“And quite right, dear lady. There are certain unscrupulous people who might . . .”
“Might take advantage of the opposite sex?” the Countess sounded distressed.
“Just so! Purely for your protection, mind you, we’ll draw up a little legal paper which takes all the worries off your mind and puts them on my shoulders.”
“But I wouldn’t dream of asking you to sign anything until you’ve seen the oil!”
The Stockbroker was taken back. “Oh, I’m not signing. Only you.”
“No, no, I insist on being fair to you!” The Countess fluttered. “You must come to my house at eleven tomorrow night. This type of contract should be concluded at night.”
From the Broker’s office, she went directly to the General’s. The General was most courtly, once he had studied the little bottle in her reticule. He assured her he felt honored that so charming a lady should come to him with her little problem. His day was to be devoted to a new nuclear bomb, capable of wiping out seventy-five percent of the world’s population. But he assuredly would send a courier with contracts immediately.
The Countess was coy. “You’ve been so kind that I must insist on returning your hospitality. And you should see the oil yourself before signing. Shall we say tomorrow evening at eleven, then?”
From the General, to the Commissar. At his hotel he was lecturing underlings on the necessity to destroy all effete capitalistic imperialists before they could destroy the noble sons of Mother Russia. But once he had glimpsed her bottle, he interrupted the lecture. He was only too happy to accept an invitation for the following evening.
Next, the Reverend. He was exhorting sinners to repent at a rally in the Stadium. A burning cross flamed in the background. The whipping up of emotions to a fever pitch was exhausting work. Afterward, in his caravan, he toweled himself while talking to the Countess.
My dear Countess,” he said smugly, “I do hope you had a good seat?” He continued his mopping. “You heard me calling all those sinners? The city festers with sin!”
“I’ve always been somewhat confused as to the exact definition of sin, Reverend.”
“Sin is disobedience to God. And we’re all sinners, since Eden. All born to sin.”
“Forgive me, but if God hadn’t let Eve and Adam eat the apple in the first place, wouldn’t it have saved so much trouble? Is Salvation open only to Christians, sir?”
There is only one true religion, Madame. We serve to spread that joyous word.”
The Countess arose majestically. “How odd He didn’t do that Himself. Shall we say tomorrow night at eleven? And remember, Reverend, this is just between you and me. Unless, of course, you think that God might feel left out.”
After this, there remained only the Chairman himself. And the Prospector.
*Five o’clock, in the Countess Aurelia’s younger days, had been the most elegant hour for tea. So precisely at five, Madame Constance and Mademoiselle Gabrielle were ushered into her conservatory by Irma, who had become a temporary fixture there, once it was established that Roderick must remain until recovered from his Ugly Episode.
Madame Josephine, the Madwoman of Le Concorde and steeped in legal lore, was as usual somewhat tardy. But the others passed the waiting time making much of Dickie, Madam Constance’s imaginary little dog. The Countess even made a few preparatory remarks.
“Yesterday,” she informed her two old friends, “thanks to a young man who tried to drown himself in the Seine, I discovered a terrible plot. I discovered that there is a group of men who want to destroy our entire city.”
Gabrielle batted her eyelashes. “Why should anyone want to destroy Paris?”
“We are living, my dears, in the Age of the Golden Calf. Nowadays, only money talks. Unless we do something about this, we are all doomed. Any suggestions?”
“In cases like this,” said Constance, “I always write to the President. Since you are asking our advice, Aurelia, doubtless you have already made up your mind.”
“I’ll tell you what I have decided, then. I intend to exterminate these men.”
Constance was at once alarmed. “Kill them, you mean? But if they’re killed, they are bound to be missed. And we shall be fined. They fine you for every little thing.”
“Do you miss a cold when it’s gone?” pressed the Countess. “They’ll never be missed.”
It was at this moment that Irma announced Madame Josephine. As the latest guest entered, the Countess was already addressing her. “I’ve a legal problem for you.”
“Yes?” The Madwoman of La Concorde looked rather like a Supreme Court judge herself.
“Suppose you could get all the world’s criminals into one room? And suppose you had a way of getting rid of them? Would you have the right to do it?”
“But, Josephine!” twittered Gabrielle. “So many people?”
“De Minimis non Curat Lex. The more there are, the more legal it is. I think your idea is very practical, Aurelia. The criminals have had a fair trial, of course?”
“Trial?” The Countess made a little gesture of uncertainty.
“But I can’t have a trial without arousing their suspicions, Josephine.”
“Oh, there’s a way around that!” Josephine assured her heartily. “You can summon the Defendants by calling them three times. Mentally, if you wish. If they don’t appear, the Court can designate an attorney to represent them. This attorney can then argue their case in absentia. And the judgment can be rendered in contumacio.”
“But I don’t know any lawyers! And I’ve asked them to be here at eleven!”
“Quite simple, Aurelia. In case of emergency, it’s permissible for the Court to order the first passer-by to act for the Defense. You can just get anyone.”
“We - we couldn’t have it here, could we? The trial?”
“We could.” No magistrate of La Concorde ever spoke with more assurance.
With a sigh of relief, the Countess rang her bell to summon Irma and inquire if her friends from the terrace of the Café Francis had arrived. She was assured they had.
“There’s quite a collection outside, Countess,” Irma estimated.
*The cellar was gloomy but spacious enough to accommodate all the misfits from the square - Juggler, Ragpicker, Folksinger, Deaf Mute, Poule, Waiter, the lot.
“What about the Ragpicker for Defense Counsel?” the Countess suggested.
“Is it right so many millionaires should be represented by a Ragpicker?” Constance ventured. But Josephine assured them that criminals always were represented by their opposites. Experience showed this was the only way to win an acquittal.
“But we mustn’t have an acquittal!” the Countess cried. “That would end the world!”
“Justice is justice, my dear,” Josephine reminded her virtuously.
The Countess spoke briefly to her assembled guests, gazing earnestly from face to face as she did so. “We are about to summon before the Bar of Justice all the wicked people of the world. Ragpicker, dear, you must be Attorney for the Defense.
“Very flattered,” the Ragpicker bowed. “Er, do I know the Defendants?”
“Those terrible men at the Café.”
“Then I know them to the bottom of their souls. I go through their garbage daily. Instead of speaking as Attorney, Countess, why don’t I speak directly as Defendant? That way, I can get more into it.”
The trial began. Josephine presided as Judge, with the Countess beside her.
“Just how rich am I?” the Ragpicker wanted to know. “Millions? Billions? And how did I get that way? By murder, theft, embezzlement, what?” He assumed a position as though he stood in the dock. “I am ready. I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth - no, I swear to lie, conceal, distort everything and slander everybody.”
“Very well,” said Her Honor. “Get on with it!”
“May it please this honorable court, my life is an open book, I am a pillar of the church. I support all organized charities that are tax deductable.”
The Countess stepped in as Prosecutor. “You are charged with a total lack of feeling for others. Disgusting grossness. The abuse of power. And worship of money.”
“Worship money? Me?” The Ragpicker was piously indignant. “I plead not guilty! I don’t worship money. It’s the other way around. Money worships me. It won’t let me alone. The first time money came to me, I was a mere boy. Untouched. Untainted. It came quite suddenly when I innocently picked a bar of gold bullion out of a garbage can while playing. As you can imagine, I was horrified. I tried swapping it for a little, rundown one-track railroad. To my childish amazement this immediately sold itself for a hundred times its value. I made desperate efforts to get rid of this unwanted wealth.”
The gathering stared at him in undisguised fascination as he continued.
“I bought refineries, department stores, every munitions factory I could lay hands on. The rest is history. They stuck to me. They multiplied. And now I am powerless. Everyone knows the poor have no one but themselves to blame for their poverty. But how is it the fault of the rich if they’re rich? Oh, I don’t ask for your pity. All I ask for is a little human understanding.”
An instant chorus of accusations burst from the ranks of his listeners.
“You think you should have your money for nothing” . . . . “You never part with a franc” . . .
“Slander!” cried the Ragpicker indignantly! “I spend in order that you may live. If I have tan shoes, I buy black ones. Who benefits? If I have a Fiat, I buy a Mercedes. If I have a wife, I pay alimony. But no matter what I do, I rid myself of my money. I bet a hundred-to-one shot, the horse comes in by twenty lengths. I cannot help myself, ladies and gentlemen. That money sticks like glue, although I buy twelve chateaux, twenty villas, endow the opera and keep fourteen ballerinas.”
*He was really getting his back into the speech by now. They were spellbound.
“Yes, ballerinas. How can women deny me anything? I mix morals with sable. I drip pearls into protest. I adorn resistance with rubies. I can have all women. Ah, without money nobody likes or trusts you. But to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty. To have none is to be ugly and boring and stupid and useless.”
The Countess confronted him. “One last question. Suppose you find this oil you’re looking for? What will you do with it?”
“I’ll make war! I’ll destroy what remains of the world!”
“You’ve heard the Defense.” Now she faced the jury. “I demand a verdict of guilty!”
“Guilty!” they shouted, all together. “Guilty as charged!”
“And I have full authority to carry out the sentence?” the Countess asked. “I can do what I like with all of them? I can exterminate them?”
“Yes! Yes! YES!”
Josephine spoke with dignity. “This Court is adjourned.”
As silently as they had come, her friends trooped back up the cellar stairs and dispersed through a deepening twilight. But the Countess remained behind. When she was quite alone, she crossed to an inconspicuous door and unbolted it. Here a flight of steep steps plunged downward into the darkness of an even deeper sub-cellar.
She tugged a bracelet from her wrist, stood back, and pitched it neatly through the opening. It could be heard bounding down the long flight, step to step, until at last it splashed into invisible water. Down there, very far down, the river flowed. The labyrinth of crisscrossing tunnels was so confusing that a man might wander until he drowned without ever finding his way back to the daylight.
She stood for a moment, peering downward. Then she turned back, calling aloft.
“Irma? I think I’ll take a little nap now. It was a beautiful trial, wasn’t it?
*She was still resting in her conservatory when Roderick tiptoed in and put something that felt light and soft across her bosom. She knew it at once. Her marvelous boa.
But it was his hand she caught and held, eyes tight shut. “Alphonse Bertaut?”
“No,” said Roderick softly. “It is I, Roderick.”
“Do not lie to me, Alphonse. You have come back to continue the feast of love. Why did you leave it so long? Was she very lovely, the one who took you from me?”
“No,” he answered, still holding her hand. “No lovelier than you, Countess.”
“Then why? Was she young? Was she poor so that you pitied her? Did you give her the same flowers, buy her the same chocolates, send her the same valentines? Why?
“Forgive me,” he whispered. And if he was actually Roderick gazing across her head into Irma’s brimming eyes, while here lids remained lowered he was also Alphonse.
She looked up at him, and Alphonse was gone. He always did make a quick exit, that one. She fingered the length of her boa, smiling. “Where did you find it?”
“In your wardrobe,” he said, “behind the mirror.” Which explained things instantly. The Countess never looked into mirrors any more. Mirrors only lied.
A clock somewhere began to chime eleven, and Irma came in quietly to say that her new guests had arrived. The Countess arose. “Stay up here. I’ll call when I need you.”
She left them lost in each other’s eyes and went down her gracious staircase. They were all awaiting her in the hall. The Chairman. The Prospector. The Reverend. The General. The Commissar. The Broker. And they seemed rather to admire her business flair in offering each an exclusive contract, then surprising them with one another.
“We congratulate you, Countess,” the Broker beamed. “Getting us to compete.”
“I am glad you’re not angry.” She smiled sweetly. “Please, come this way.”
Down into the first cellar she led them, still talking. “You were all prepared to double-cross one another . . . .” She felt them crowd eagerly behind her.
“Not at all,” said the Chairman heartily. “If we are this devious separately, dear Countess, think how overwhelming we shall be collectively!”
She opened the door to the second flight and stood aside. “Careful of the steps!”
Past her they shouldered, greed for the oil she promised outweighing their manners. The Countess called after them. “Straight down. There are no turns.”
While echoes of their hurrying descent still lifted from the murk, she gently closed the door and bolted it. She turned the key for double insurance, and pocketed it. When she turned back, it was to find Roderick and Irma halfway down the upper flight and holding hands. She climbed to meet them. And as she passed, she whispered to the girl.
“Say it! Say that you love him before it’s too late! Let another moment wedge between you and it will become a month, a year, a decade. Your hair will be white. His cuffs will be frayed. And there will be another madwoman in Chaillot. So say it!”
She left them together to fall in love, or to finish falling in love, and went out alone through her empty house and into the streets which converged upon the Café Francis. On a bench as she passed it the Ragpicker lay huddled in sleep and she paused beside him for long enough to drop into his lax hand the newspaper she had picked up on her way through the hall. She had taken several steps before he called after her.
“But Countess! This is your paper. The one you always . . .”
The Countess turned back, and dazzled him with her smile. “Yes, Ragpicker. I think it’s time I moved on to another year.”
‘Madwoman of Chaillot’ Witty Comedy
Katharine Hepburn Portrays Countess Set On Saving Paris
More than 20 years ago, playwright Jean Giraudoux came out with “The Madwoman of Chaillot” – a witty, sophisticated, yet serious comedy about the world on the brink of self-destruction. It opened on Broadway in 1948 for a fairly successful run.
It came back to New York as a musical earlier this year, entitled “Dear World” and flopped miserably, despite the valiant efforts of Angela Lansbury. And now it unfurls on the screen with Katharine Hepburn in the title role.
Some purists will say that the film adaptation has destroyed much of Giraudoux’ original satirical thrusts in updating it to the jet age, but actually this pleasant excursion into a study of fantasy and the inherent greed of wealthy men seems just as topical as a couple of decades ago. Maybe even more so; only the size of the nuclear warheads has changed.
The Warner Bros.-Seven Arts production at the Forum, Encore Theaters is a lavish color presentation by Ely Landau, shot in Paris and with interiors in Nice. And the producer’s lineup of people backing up Miss Hepburn is a solid array of big names, including Danny Kaye as the ragpicker, Yul Brynner as the chairman, Oscar Homolka as the commissar, Donald Pleasence as the prospector, Richard Chamberlain as his nephew, Charles Boyer as the broker, Paul Henreid as the general and John Gavin as the reverend.
Direction Moves At Leisurely Pace
The distaff side is enriched by Edith Evans as Josephine, Margaret Leighton as Constance, Giulietta Masina as Gabrielle and Nanette Newman as Irma.
Very few stage vehicles have been transported to the screen without a few problems and this “Madwoman” is no exception. Bryan Forbes’ direction trudges forward at a leisurely pace, but so what? This happens almost every time a movie director is forced to manipulate a play. Edward Anhalt deserves a good word for his script. He has managed to salvage most of the fine flavor of the original product.
Possibly the basic problem of “The Madwoman of Chaillot” is that the characters as written for the stage are “bigger than life.” When they are transposed to realistic settings on the screen, they seem to lose their identities a bit – being neither symbolic or real.
But the above is nit-picking for the most part. The picture runs well over the two-hour mark, yet is never a bore, thanks to its sparkling dialog. Miss Hepburn and her dedicated, serious ways make her much more calculating than the original mad countess was ever intended to be. But that matters little also, for she’s such a fine actress and a pleasure to watch; she’d even be a hit in a mad romp with the Four Stooges.
“Madwoman” has another thing going for it in these days of a preponderance of “X” rated films. It has a “G” classification without being geared for the 10-year-old level or raising otters in the Canadian wilds.
Café’s Water Has Oily Flavor
Highlights of the film are the original meeting of the big money men in the café and Danny Kaye’s defense of their total outlook on life and their actions in the countess’ cellar prior to disposing of them. In the former, Pleasence excels as the prospector who has sniffed out the taste and smell of oil in the café’s water supply (he’s one of those blokes who actually drinks a glass of water at a café). Agreeing with him on the need to rip up Paris and drill for oil and especially amusing are Brynner, Homolka, Boyer and Henreid.
Kaye’s impassioned plea for them (although he’s on the other side of the fence in his daily examination of their garbage) is his best small role in a long time. It would be nice to see more of him in forthcoming films.
Complementing Miss Hepburn is a hilarious bit by Miss Evans as the presiding judge of the impromptu court, Miss Leighton with her imaginary dog and the rest with equally spurious boy friends. Of course, all of the old girls are somewhat addled, a condition which helps them find a way to the final solution. They all agree that the big boys from the establishment are “guilty” and somehow must be wiped off the earth, if mankind is to survive.
Photography by Claude Renoir and Burnett Guffey is marvelous, in close harmony with the excellent musical score by Michael J. Lewis.