From the garden I saw that her door was half open, as usual. I hoisted myself onto her balcony and slipped between the curtains.
She was standing in front of her mirror, her back and waist almost delicate in contrast to her elaborate powdered wig and crinoline skirt. She was humming to herself, twisting and turning her shoulders, her brocade bodice. I knew she was going through her alphabet. Her skirt bounced and swished like a punctuation mark to every movement she made. Did she know she wasn't alone in her room? She folded her hands behind her back. Her mouth drew into a smile as she arched her body and watched her powdered breasts struggle against her bodice.
In a noiseless leap I appeared behind her in the mirror, immobilized her hands behind her back. Her pretty lips opened to a sound that anyone else might have mistaken for shock. I knew my Angèle. I promenaded my gaze from her eyes to her cleavage with the smile of an accomplice. She leant against me as though to attest, yes, she had been caught, she was at my mercy. But I would be merciful, wouldn't I, her grey eyes tried to dictate.
"My faithless angel," I threatened into her ear, holding her gaze in the mirror. I let her watch my hands reach up under her bosom. I slowly force her bodice down. The pale crescents of her nipples rose on the horizon of the brocade. Her eyes darkened.
"Who is this for, my love? Tell me."
Even before I brushed a fingertip, light as a powder puff, across that horizon, she had closed her eyes. I stopped. I needed her eyes so she couldn't lie to me. She peeked at me through her lashes. A frown announced that she was growing annoyed. All of a sudden she took me in. Wide-eyed, she managed to leap aside and leave me to myself in the mirror.
"You are dressed up? You are NOT invited!"
"I'm still going to be there. In a costume that will be noticed, won't it, chérie?" I turned and twisted in front of the mirror the way she had. A powdered dandy, white from top to toes. I adjusted a curl on my wig, beat the lace ruffles of my sleeves into place before tucking my hand in my hip, my legs in knee-pants crossed to perfection. "Doesn't your ardent lover cast a figure worth being the guest of honor at your fiançailles?"
Her face was torn between desire and disgust. "If you make a scandal it's all over." She threw up her chin. "I warned you. If you spoil this you will never see me again." She straightened her dress with determination.
"Spoil it? I? Hasn't it already been spoilt? By that cherished monsieur I can't wait to encounter? Monsieur the Count, or is it Monsieur the Accountant? One bourse bien plaine and another that, between you and me, will hardly count . . . " I rotated my hips in derision. She continued staring me up and down as though unable to decide whether she was beholding a dream or a devil.
"You are mad!" She stormed out of the room before I could stop her. I grabbed her mask from the dressing table and raced after her, down the flight of stairs. The servants wouldn't recognize me. A dandy chasing after a lady, holding up his trophy, the lady's pearl-and-feather-mask. It would seem no more than a frivolous game.
She banged a door shut and turned a key, but I caught up with her from the opposite direction, through the library. I found her pressed against the door, panting, arms spread as though to protect her feast. We looked at each other across the banquet table, laid out with the finest china, silver, crystal, flower arrangements. Set for a good thirty people. All the important people in her life. All except the inadmissable passion, the impossible lover, the pariah. Me.
"Leave," she commanded. "I'll call for George."
"Yes, let's call for George." I approached. "I'll take off my wig and present myself properly. As the one with the most legitimate claim to your incandescent body."
"Please." She suddenly threw herself into my arms."Mon amour. I love you. Please control yourself." I was expecting tears. "Nothing will change between us, I promise. You can't marry me. Even if you wanted to. Would you really ruin everything over a dinner party?"
I considered. "I just want to be there. You will surely agree that I need to see it with my own eyes. How else could I believe it?"
"You will be thrown out, you better believe it. It would be a shame for your—"
"Reputation? You are too concerned about me, dearest. Isn't it rather your reputation that we should worry about, in case of a scandal?"
She let go of me with a scornful laugh. There were steps in the hallway, shouts, the clapping of hands.
"George is lining up the servants. You have one minute." Her chin pointed to the exit, through the library. I did not move. "Tant pis alors. Stay and let Geoge take care of you."
She undulated down the table, trailing her hand across the backs of the chairs. "Nobody will believe you," she challenged. "You perfectly know it. Because you ARE unbelievable."
I was impressed with her maîtrise. She looked more desirable than ever, pretending to be cold, her eyes flashing with anger.
"There is room, you realize, for an extra plate at your table. For a surprise guest, let's say, an old friend, your guest of honor. Anything you like. Could you have forgotten that I am always anything you like, and how much you like it?"
I could tell my words made a mark but she did her best to deny it.
"All I'd like you to be is AIR."
In the hall, George could be heard giving final directions. In the courtyard, a first carriage approached.
"Can I take this little something of you at least?" I twirled her mask around on its stick, pretending to walk out.
"Take what you like."
I took her hand as I passed her, fell to my knees, kissed her palm, dug my teeth into its center. "Air I'll be. I won't be seen, I promise. Just let me be there, somewhere. Hide me."
She withdrew her hand as the door flung open. I ducked, protected from view by the table. I heard the servants come in and stop to take her orders. In a moment's inspiration, I lifted the seam of her dress and slipped under it, fast as a thievish cat.
"Très bien. We will need to . . . make sure everything is as it is supposed to be," she decreed.
I clung to her legs for dear life. As long as I was where I found myself, everything was indeed as it was supposed to be.
"S'il vous plaît. Make sure all the doors to the garden are open. "
I heard the rush of steps. Was she going to walk me, that is, walk with me to the garden and shake her dress out? I would not let her shake me out. I was determined to exert whatever control I had over her legs. I was just starting to enjoy the prospects of this position, when her skirt went up. I felt the shock of air and exposure, but in the next moment, she had lifted the table cloth— opening a discrete tunnel from one hideaway to another. I obliged on my knees, blowing her a kiss for the compromise with which she had saved herself. Through clenched teeth, she abandoned me to my destiny:
I regretted my first hiding place, its comparative safety. She was going to welcome her guests, leaving me alone with her boorish servants. I heard her call one of them, Jean, and demand that he personally serve her at the banquet. Someone – most likely she – adjusted the chair at the head of the table as though to mark her place for me. Was she worried, in case I needed to rush under cover again, that I would pick the wrong skirt?
The thought that Angèle was worrying about me inspired me. I made myself as comfortable as possible under my square tent. I stretched out on the solid center support of the table. It was high enough above ground to hide me from a casual glance at the floor. I watched the lacquered shoes of the servants shuffle and pirouette around me. Should misfortune lead to an early discovery by the servants, I plotted to pronounce myself a gift, the surprise performance arranged by the future husband, monsieur le fiancé, for his beloved. But if the discovery were to happen during the banquet? In case someone insisted on retrieving, say, a potato gone overboard? Nobody would be more surprised than Monsieur. Probably Angèle's ill-famed great-aunt Maude would be a better choice. Great-aunt Maude had exiled herself to Britain with an actor at the scandalous age of fifty-one. It would be just like her to arrange for a pantomime, a mock homage to marital happiness, as an engagement present for her great-niece.
One of the servants was keeping watch at the window, announcing mezza voce who was arriving with whom, in what kind of a carriage, in what state of dress. There were oh's and ah's, snides and sniggers. The slyness of their observations provided me a promising picture of the party before it had begun. The chamber orchestra in the adjacent room began to play and the flock entered in procession. The laquered shoes finally took position, pair by pair, behind the chairs. I was impressed, to say the least, with the noise, the screeching of chairs, the number of knees and feet pushing in on me at once. Fortunately the table was broad. I would not be a likely target for the shorter legs. For more protection I could cower between the vertical posts of two cross-sections that ran perpendicular to the horizontal center support of the table. One of these comparatively safe barricades was situated at the feet of my enemy, Monsieur, the other one close to my ultimate salvation, the skirt of Angèle.
I amused myself with the fantasy of not knowing where she was seated or how she was dressed. How fast would I find her among all the ladies' extremities hidden and half revealed by skirts and table cloth? I noticed with fascination how many satin slippers got dropped almost as soon as the intake of soup began. Food was clearly bringing some desire for expansion, even extravagance, to the party. I watched one of those liberated little feet come to the encounter of another one, equally bared, of the same sex. To the best of my imagination, I could not figure out who the two daredevils might be. In other circumstances, would I have suspected Angèle? I was burning to peek up from under my tent, and now I cursed the lackeys for the lack of sophistication in their observations.
The hostess's feet, I noted, were still in her shoes, advancing in slow probing movements along the floor, circling in mid-air, tapping against the hard wood of the cross section near her. Having left me behind, she could not be sure about my destiny under the table. Was I still there at all? I gave her time to wonder. The second course was being served, Feuilleté à la Reine, as I could tell by the smell I loathe. I cat-walked along the center support to get a close look at my rival. On my way, I passed a pair of wide-spread, massive legs in pants so tight the hairy hand of their owner kept relieving the itching apparatus in between. I knew this must be Uncle Edouard, the old hunter of all kinds of beasts. By comparison, the future husband's treasure appeared rather lost in its cage, a bird without feathers, not to speak of wings. I returned with a mixture of pity and rage. Climbing back over Uncle Edouard, I was careful to avoid a kick that might have catapulted me straight into some questionable lap across from him. The two naughty feet were still at it. I felt inspired to pull Angèle's mask out of my pocket and introduce its crowning feather as the third player in the game. There was a second of surprise. Soon the two complete pairs were engaged with an eagerness that made me wonder about their owner's composure at their plates.
Meanwhile, a number of shoes had been left alone by feet searching for comfort of all kinds. It was time to liberate Angèle. The speed with which she understood and bared her feet to be tickled might have been called indecent. I noticed a little silence at her end of the table, then her father's voice:
"Does the wine make you sleepy, dear?"
I grinned to myself. The dear must have forgotten herself for a moment and closed her eyes.
"Oh, I was just remembering . . . A lovely memory. The day I first set eyes on —" She didn't pronounce his name. It wasn't necessary. Everyone raised their glasses:
I encouraged her by lifting her skirts out of the way and opening the buttons above her ankles.
"What memory, Angie? Tell, tell!"
I recognized her nosy thirteen-year-old cousin Lucille.
"I was on my way to the races, in the Bois de Boulogne. This elegant rider came up from behind, rode alongside my carriage and suddenly threw a rose into my lap."
"How charming . . ."
"What an encounter . . ."
"Right into your lap?", Lucille wanted to know.
"Well-aimed," Angèle laughed her throaty laugh. "A rose white as snow. But that wasn't all. It happened again. The next Sunday, when he came riding up behind me, he threw a pink rose. Then, the third –"
The fiancé cleared his throat, "Ma chère, we were introduced at the races."
Everyone broke out in admiration over a couple so romantically suited. I wasn't sure whether she was telling the story to torture or entice me. I remembered when I slowed out of her sight, she had peeled each rose to the core and sent the petals flying out of her carriage at me. The high mood at the table was carried over into appreciation of the artichokes and the exquisite vinaigrette. I decided to claim my share of the feast by peeling the hostess.
With the little stick of her mask I probed whether the moment was opportune. My poking up her skirts just enough to stroke along her thighs was met with welcome, especially when I erred a bit from the path and let the stick slip into the ravine which couldn't resist widening for easier access. I was in no hurry to get to the artichoke's heart. In order to pursue with proper manners I left the stronghold of my cross-section. Lifting her skirts back over me, I went on my knees in front of her. She quickly closed her thighs. I entered her ruffled trousers from the sides, caressing up her legs. No sign of truce. I rolled up her pants little by little, following each stage with kisses, until I reached the different silk of her skin above her stockings. There I let my little feather play up again.
"Ah! This is so GOOD . . ., isn't it?"
There was resounding agreement around the table, and new bottles were uncorked while Mademoiselle la fiancée made room for me between her legs.
Woman is a bun spread with white marble, I recited to myself, caressing the padded mound above her ravine with my different implements. I pressed my mouth to the fine white cloth that covered it, sending hot air down her flesh. She pressed against me. Impatiently, she ordered Jean to remove the artichoke leaves. I obliged, gently pulling the cloth aside to enlarge the opening in her pants. And there, jutting out from its cotton frame, was my artichoke heart, pink and pouting.
The beast, I thought. Powdered. As though she had known and prepared for me, her connoisseur. Was it all her scenario, the scene in the mirror played out for me, her running down to the table, pretending to send me to hell... as a foretaste of salvation?
I circled around her like a cat around hot milk. Who was serving whose plot?
The next course was delayed. Her father said a few formal words, addressing the happy occasion. The husband-to-be rose to bring out a toast to the day, to the very special privilege he enjoyed in being there . . . Being where, exactly? I showed Angèle, taking a sudden mouthful of her with a short, delicate bite as the finish. A shriek rewarded me. A glass was thrown over. I saw the splashes on the floor. She giggled.
"Cher Hugo, pardonnez-moi! I am so excited by it all, you know? Please, go on, mon amour." The last words were uttered with an insistence that left me no doubt as to whom they were meant for. Cher Hugo went on rhapsodizing while she couldn't stop giggling. I could tell he was troubled by that reaction. He went quite out of character telling stories, trying to be funny. Had he known it was my little feather that caused her such amusement, he would have lost his speech.
Angèle must have had something similar in mind. With sudden irritation she commanded, "Let's get serious now! Let's get to the point!"
The fiancé scrambled to an end of his address and fell back on his chair. The company cheered and the seafood course was carried in.
I caught myself fantasizing about powdered lobster on her plate. The very obvious, precisely, can bring on an appetite. With my fingers I delicately separated her lips, delighted to see them close up again under the restraint of her trousers, forming an ever more pouchy and glistening pout. I had to hold back my kisses in order not to lose my head – and my game – in my hunger. She squeezed her thighs against me with urgency, almost panic, but I refused to be predictable. I kept her going, waiting for the main dish to come on, squeezing her feet and sucking on her every now and then.
"Bon Dieu, it is hot," she blurted out. "Where is my fan? Jean, my fan! Isn't it amazing, such heat in June? I can't remember anything like it."
This led to a lively discussion of the weather in June. The main course, deer by its smell, was served.
"More! I want more," my greedy Belle announced like an unruly child.
Some voices sounded hushed alarm. The future husband took it upon himself to send reassurance across the table, "But you'll have everything you need, ma chérie . . ."
"I'm not so sure," she sulked and kicked her heels into my groin. Several servants rushed to fill her plate.
I was satisfied with our communication. I felt more and more present at the table. In order to tell her so, I slid my tongue all the way down the ravine to the place where my hungry heroine was crying out.
"This is too much," she exclaimed ravenously. Everyone politely laughed and speculated what such a healthy appetite would mean for founding a family. I didn't like these speculations. She is mine, I raged, nothing and nobody else will fill her, and I plunged as though sending a warning to everyone present. She must have thrown her body backwards, coming toward me as though all dams were breaking.
"Ah, la vie est belle," she shouted. There was a stunned silence. A throat was cleared here and there. I heard a scandalized whisper and her father's reprimanding, "Angèle! Are you all right?" Monsieur le fiancé pushed his chair back as though to rush to the rescue. But he sat down again when she commanded:
"Let's all sing together. Let's sing Hugo's favorite song!" And she began, "Boire un petit coup c'est agréable . . ."
The company showed good will falling in and see-sawing along, while she rocked against me and drank me up until the cup ran over and spilled its shameless sweetness, for me.
I rewarded her indecency by serving her a creamy dessert in spirals. When I heard her sigh over her coffee and reveal to her guests, "Rien ne va plu," I was certain she had gambled away her marriage. I, the woman she could not wed, had won the game.