© Karen Snape-Williams
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One grey June morning, with the unexpected demise of a pet rabbit producing the habitual shrieks and wails of my brood, I withdrew to my study. Pouring myself a whisky and lighting a cigar I sifted through the morning mail and came upon a letter from my friend, Arthur Rees-Bowen. He opened with an account of a mountaineering excursion in the Pyrenees, a broken bootlace and a sprained ankle. He continued with his impressions of Twain, met whilst dining at Blenheim. With warm wishes to Florence and the children, he ended with an invitation to join him in London on the 18th.
No more loyal, kind or witty companion could a man hope for, yet I immediately questioned this lack of embellishment. Was there another discovery, an exhibit of peculiarity he wished to reveal? Setting his letter aside, I recalled the giant of twelve feet exposed as a Chinese acrobat balanced on wooden stilts. The two-headed woman, less a freak of humanity more a skilful whittler of a Cantaloupe melon. These recollections caused me to ponder my reply.
Footsteps approaching along the corridor, the sobs and whimpers of my children, and Florence’s overwrought tones exclaiming, ‘We shall speak to Father for only he can resolve this calamity,’ compelled my response. I scribbled on my blotter: purchase 1 rabbit (white) then from my drawer, withdrew a fresh sheet of stationery.
My dear Arty, I would be delighted . . .
How I cursed Arty’s lack of punctuality as I dallied outside the Pig and Whistle on Field Lane. The absence of a pea soup fog and the rare clarity of the air only increasing my unease, for I sensed the passers-by assessing my vulnerability, the rich pickings secreted within the inner pocket of my grey frock coat. My misguided compassion for a shoeless waif, a penny pressed into his dirty fingers only accentuated my problem. From doorways and alleys a dozen similar unfortunates appeared. With my spine crushed against the tavern window, had it not been for Arty’s arrival plucking me from the frantic throng and steering me down an alley, I would have surely been relieved of my gold timepiece and wallet.
‘Forgive me, Edward,’ he explained, setting a fierce pace. ‘Time loses all meaning when relishing the delights of a mutton chop and a fine bottle of claret. Ah! Here we are.’ We had reached our destination.
Black brickwork, a door with peeling paint and rusty hinges did nothing to promote my anticipation of the evening, yet after crossing the threshold and following Arty up a flight of stairs I found myself in a surprisingly elegant room. Although an hour or more was left of daylight, red velvet curtains had been drawn and candles lit. Thirty or so chairs with embroidered cushions had been arranged in a semi-circle and between each aisle and in the corners and periphery of the room, guests circulated.
As we took refreshments, Arty introduced me to a judge, two politicians and a surgeon, a man renowned for his work with the royal families of Europe. From the conversation of these eminent gentlemen I discovered we had assembled to witness the ‘miraculous’ and ‘phenomenal’ talent of a Madame Roquet. Though their exuberance intrigued me, I said nothing.
Arty, noticing my sceptical expression pulled me aside. Fixing me with his one, clear blue eye he said, ‘I promise you, Edward. This time you will be astonished.’
With the mood of excitement building, I took my seat. From a side door a man emerged and stood before us. How to describe Monsieur Bazile? Foppish. From his lace cuffs, scarlet cloak and oiled moustache to his extravagant gestures and melodramatic outpourings, he was the epitome of the ringmaster. I shall not dwell upon Bazile or the content of his blustering. I did not take to him.
‘And so wizout furzer ado, I present Madame Roquet.’
With a roar of approval, the audience leapt to their feet. With my view hindered by a tall man with an enormous head, the spectators had settled before I perceived a diminutive young woman, the antithesis of Bazile.
Devoid of gem, lace or any such frippery, she wore a gown of grey silk. She loitered at the door, neither in nor out, until Bazile, in a most unseemly fashion, placed his hands about her waist and propelled her forward. Finally her chin lifted to reveal adequate if unremarkable features set in a pallid complexion and, as if woken from a dream, this fragile creature, a woman I sensed of high emotion and low esteem, finally looked upon us.
What did I expect? A song, a ditty, a psychic revelation? Was there any amongst the dear departed I preferred not to encounter? As I mused upon this, Madame Roquet took a deep breath and with graceful progression her body folded as a snake would recoil into its basket. She held this curious posture for one, maybe two minutes until a man seated to my left and seemingly unable to contain his excitement or bent on destroying Madame’s concentration, exclaimed in a loud voice, ‘I say, look out everyone.’
The intrusion provoked several hisses of admonishment, a matter inducing the most startling response from Madame. With a terrifying shriek, she sprang to her feet and as she did so, released a flatulent explosion of such intensity, the curtains quivered and the flames of several candles fizzed and died.
With my hand clamped across my nose, I endeavoured to locate the halfwit whose interruption had caused what I feared would be eternal shame on Madame. My gaze fell upon the surgeon who glared in a most ferocious manner. As his features vanished between unruly eyebrows and a bristling moustache, I realised with horror his displeasure was aimed at me. Had my initial reaction of self-preservation offended him? I turned to my friend for guidance and was further confounded to find Arty slumped in his seat, as was every man around me, gulping as if their very life depended on it, the stench of Madame Roquet’s eructation.
I removed my hand. I took a tentative sniff. It generated nothing more unsavoury than the aroma of freshly cut lemons, tangy and inexplicably refreshing.
A second, bolder inhalation and the ropes securing me to my harbour of prudence, scepticism and restraint were severed. Caressed by the feathery wings of angels and encased in a cradle of tranquillity, I floated in a cloudless sky and drifted in a warm breeze. From an English garden loaded with scented lavender I was transported across the globe, west to east, submerged within the pungent aroma of jasmine and vanilla. How long did I glide in this blissful atmosphere of serenity? I know not. Was it my strength of reason, a fear of the unexplained that beckoned me back? In truth, every bone, every sinew in my body resisted the awakening gloom of reality.
Glazed eyes and flushed faces. Animated conversation and laughter. As I struggled to regain my composure, I caught the retreating figure of Madame Roquet, bent, spent and exhausted. I gave no thought to her suffering.
Arty nudged my arm and winked. ‘You’ve returned to us at last! Are you amazed?’
I cleared my throat. I adopted the severest expression of distaste I could muster. ‘Chicanery,’ I declared. ‘I know not how. Hidden vents conveying a gas into the room?’
‘The room was examined. There are no vents.’
‘Then a drug, a chemical slipped into our refreshments?’
Arty laughed. ‘Opium in your orangeade! I assure you, any skulduggery would have been exposed. Now, I have marvellous news, old chum. You shall have the opportunity to witness Madame once more. She has agreed to perform again tomorrow night!’
The following night and with urgency in our stride we walked side by side to the venue. We chattered about this and that, a distraction to allay the craving. I had slept badly. I had no appetite, my only greed being one that suffocated all reason, all shame. I had written to my wife explaining unexpected business had delayed my return. The lie appalled me, as did my trembling hands.
There was comfort found on arrival, to unite with the rest, this secret brotherhood who soared with scented angels. In a mood of barely contained fervour, we grouped around the surgeon who rocked on the balls of his feet as he addressed us.
‘She wanted to cancel the performance! I had a quiet word with Bazile, and the matter was immediately settled. One cannot allow a temperamental female to dictate terms, gentlemen. After all, one pays the organ grinder for the monkey to dance!’ Fingering the pocket of his waistcoat he withdrew several coins and held them aloft, inciting raucous laughter.
Did Madame hear us? Was it the final humiliation?
Even Bazile could not dampen my spirits. What larks! What japes! How he indulged our pomposity with flattery. How he spoon-fed our arrogance. How we soaked up this atmosphere of masculine bonhomie.
‘And so, wizout furzer ado, I present Madame Roquet.`
Momentarily silhouetted as she emerged from shadow, I could not account for the gleam of white flesh exposed at her throat, the dishevelled tumble of hair. Only when Bazile offered his hand and she stepped forward, did we witness the marks of a struggle, the swollen cheek and rips in the gown of grey silk. The applause melted away.
An embarrassed cough broke the silence and with it any fleeting moment of compassion evaporated.
‘I paid good money for this,’ said a man to my left.
‘She needs another slap,’ said another.
Her eyes narrowed and, as if in supplication, she dropped to one knee. One second elapsed before her chin lifted. Devoid of any flourish or grace and with so great a silence, had she truly released the precious vapour of ecstasy?
The answer came as her performance, her gift, her revenge, was proved to be a stinker. The first wave, a miasma of rotten eggs and oniony belches. The second a suffocating stench of cat vomit and dog excrement. The third and final, a fetid, noxious effluvium of sewers, stagnant water and putrefied flesh induced terrifying shrieks of despair.
There was no time to flee, to escape the evil as it advanced into open mouths and slipped up undefended noses. Men spluttered, coughed and gagged, and had it not been for Arty, who had the strength and presence of mind to grasp a chair and hurl it through a window, giving time for clawing fingers to unlock the door, all would have been lost. Thirty souls could not pass down the staircase at once. As men kicked and punched their way to freedom, I looked back to Madame Roquet. She noticed me and shrugged, glancing down with a smile of satisfaction to Bazile, who lay senseless at her feet.
Several years later I received a letter from Arty who began by describing a minor mishap in the Atlantic, north of the 50th parallel. Two expendable appendages had been lost to frostbite. Could Florence knit? If so, send mittens not gloves. He was recuperating in France and had encountered the surgeon who had news of Bazile and Madame Roquet.
Without Madame, Bazile’s circumstances had plunged. Dogged with poor health, the garb of lace and velvet reduced to rags, he spent his final years in the company of a dozen donkeys. From dawn untill dusk, in foul or fair weather, he plied his trade along the beach at Morecambe. Renowned for his ill- temper and melancholy, he drank himself into the workhouse and died a bitter, broken man.
And of Madame Roquet? She returned to Paris and using the nom de guerre of Bouquet, opened a patisserie. Her reputation for the lightest lavender shortbread, the intense flavour of her lemon madeleines and vanilla frosting made her rich. She eventually sold the business to an Austrian baker named Keepling and with her fortune made she retired to Provence to spend it. I wish her well.
For those of an adventurous spirit, the reckless and brave who seek fame and fortune crossing oceans and exploring the darkest and most dangerous continents of this precarious planet, I regret my story may be of poor fare. It is the best I can offer. I am a simple man who ventures no further than the country lanes surrounding my estate. I decline tobacco and intoxicating spirits. My wife holds my heart. I have no secrets. I tell no lies. I am content.