|Bewitched and bewildered|
He lay on the floor in a semiconscious state. He had fainted, but why?
It had all begun three weeks ago. He distinctly remembered the date, Monday 26th June 1990, although of no importance to his present embarrassment, it pleased him to think his memory was functioning with accuracy. That Monday morning he sat at his usual place 426 in the New York Public library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, a daily habit he enjoyed. He recalled he was studying the life and works of Theodore Roosevelt.
For a minute his mind focused on place 426. Odd this number was to play an important part in why he was laying on the floor. He remembered the first time he started going to the New York Public Library; it must have been about a year ago. He was immediately struck by the magnificence of the building, and surprised to be told the library was on the top floor. This meant climbing 72 steps (maybe there was an elevator but he never thought to use it), then crossing the Bill Blass’s catalog room with its highly polished red tiled floors; at this point one had the choice of turning left or right as the vast library room is divided in two by a central office that feverishly supplies requested books. Given the choice he always chose left, no doubt something to do with his grandfather being English.
Once in the left library he quickly noticed the front rows of the long tables devoted to computers, the next batch of tables was dedicated to people using their laptops. Finally, it pleased him to find that the last four rows of long, polished tables were reserved for quiet study absent of all modern technology. He chose the second to last table, left hand aisle. As he looked at the table he noticed all the places were numbered, eight places on each side. The numbers had been beautifully engraved in the wooden band that bordered the tables. The number 426 glared out at him: the month and year of his birth! From that day on he always sat at this particular place numbered 426 facing up the library. From this vantage point he could get a great sense of beauty of the vast room. Looking up he saw the heavily ornate high ceiling with a large square in the center adorned with clouds tinged in pink as if the sun was rising or setting. It was painted in such a way he could not tell. This masterpiece was supported by seven gigantic windows that at certain times of day let the sun rays play on the book lined walls. He instantly fell in love with the ambiance. He came every week morning for quiet study, and although he never admitted it, the time spent in the library took a few hours out of what otherwise would have been a lonely day. Now that he had his special place it felt like a second home.
On that particular Monday morning at about 11 a.m. he noticed a remarkably attractive women coming down the center aisle walking towards his table. She was dressed in a well-tailored black suit, elegant black kit gloves which fitted snuggly around her wrists. On her head she wore a tightly fitting black chapeau supporting a half veil that just covered her eyes. The chapeau didn’t quite cover all her short blond hair that suggestively showed themselves at the sides and the back of her head. He noticed she had high cheekbones supported by classical regular features. Through the veil he could just make out two large blue eyes; even as she walked towards him he could see she was beautifully made up. Her whole appearance suggested sophistication and elegance dominated by an overpowering magnetic attraction. He had difficulty taking his eyes off her. As she approached his table, in modesty, he lowered his eyes.
Now he could only see what was happening at waist level. She had stopped at his table and he saw a long gloved figure slide its way down the table opposite to where he was sitting. At each number the finger paused as though it was looking for something; slowly it progressed down the table. It finally stopped at 446; he heard a chair being pulled out. As she sat down he saw a thin leather folder being placed on the table, a gloved hand drew out a document that appeared to be a letter. The letter was placed in front of her. He noticed, for the first time, a string of pearls hanging loosely around her neck. He also observed the cut of her suit showing the gentle curves of her upper body. For some peculiar reason he felt shy about looking up at her face. To his surprise he heard her chair move. Judging from the sound of high heals she was walking round the table to go to the back of the library, no doubt to take out a reference book from one of the shelves in the corner section. As she passed behind him his nostrils caught the delicate scent of her perfume. Subtlety and seduction were the images that flooded his senses. The absence of the sound of her feet told him she had stopped. Slowly he turned in his seat to take a peek. He could only see her back as she removed a large reference book from a shelf. This back view showed the elegance of a well-tailored costume fitting to perfection an athletic, well-formed figure. The back of her blond hair was slightly curled up showing the nape of her neck. At this point he remembered being so disturbed by her presence that he immediately left the library.
That same evening he met his friend Harry for an early drink. The conversation soon turned to his experience of the morning. He clearly recalled Harry’s remarks.
“George, it is now two years ago since your wife Betsy died. It’s only natural you are starting to be interested in other women. I can’t see you remaining a widower for the rest of your life. Retired, time on your hands, money at your disposal. Look at you; a full head of hair, trim, definitely a catch for a sophisticated, mature woman.” He paused allowing his remarks to have the desired effect
“George,” Harry continued “ Don’t fantasize too much, you have never even spoke with her. It appears you left the library like a blushing schoolboy leaving his first date. What’s more you might never see her again.”
“Harry, you are probably right. Maybe it was the library, or the lighting in the room, but she appeared to me as a woman of unquestionable desire. Let’s talk about something else, as it is I cannot get her out of my mind.”
At half past ten the next morning George was sitting in his usual place 426 looking wistfully across at the vacant place 446. Earlier he had, out of curiosity, checked the section from which Madame 446 had taken a book. The section was devoted to French dictionaries; he therefore assumed she was either French, which seemed to fit her general bearing, or she had some contact with France. As he settled into his studies he thought that if the opportunity arose he would certainly try and speak with her.
To his surprise and delight at precisely eleven o’clock Madame 446 came walking down the center aisle, dressed exactly like yesterday but this time in gray. On the spur of the moment he remembered thinking there was something particularly elegant and fascinating about gray gloves. Her presence disturbed any thought of him studying. He was obsessed with taking a closer look at her and trying to engage in a conversation. Before making any attempt to realize his ambition he decided to wait until she had settled down to her studies. First the sheet of paper was extracted from the leather file. The she got up to retrieve the reference book. Once she had returned to her place he gave her three minutes to settle in. With a quick upward movement of his head he looked across the table. Her head was bent forward; the veil slightly lifted above her eyes, a pencil tightly held in her gloved hand; her face a picture of perfect concentration. At closer examination her beauty was captivating. She had high cheekbones, an aquiline nose, large seductive eyes and a mouth that was just asking to be kissed. He started to blush. It was a ridiculous situation, sitting there staring at the woman opposite like a lovesick teenager going redder and redder. He just had to leave.
Once outside the fresh air somewhat revived his spirits, and he considered returning and trying to get into conversation with her, but he knew his emotions would get the better of him. Instead he decided to call Harry and arrange to meet him.
He noticed Harry was quite concerned about his comportment. No doubt Harry thought it strange that at his time of life he had had such a strong emotional reaction over a perfect stranger.
“George, either the woman has some magical powers to bewitch you, or you are falling in love with an apparition. The only course of action, if you ever see her again, is to talk to her, this will no doubt, relieve your emotional stress.”
George knew this was good advice. Inwardly he felt deeply embarrassed about his behavior that morning.
Wednesday of that fateful week was to be the turning point. He decided to go to the library at around ten thirty, do some light reading, and pray Madame 446 would grace the library’s presence.
As his watch hands moved to eleven he looked up, first at the clouds in the high ceiling, and then towards the entrance across the tables, lamps, and heads bent in concentrated study. In the distance he saw her profile starting her journey down the central aisle. He felt moisture on his hands, and he breathed in slowly to control his emotions. He heard her sit down in her usual place.
A few seconds later she moved from her place to collect the reference book. He waited five minutes, then without looking at her he passed a folded note across the table.
It read: Madame 446 after you have finished your research would you be so kind as to have a coffee with me. Monsieur 426.
As she unfolded the note he dared a furtive look across the table. He saw a smile extended across her lips. She took her pen and wrote a reply on the back. As she slid the note across the table she looked towards him. At that moment he could have sworn her lips contracted as if blowing him a kiss, but maybe he had been imagining things.
The message read: Monsieur 426. No, not today, but if you are here tomorrow I will have a coffee with you. It will be a pleasure. Madame 446.
All the emotions he had experienced as a young man came flooding back. The word tomorrow seemed fraught with sensations of future promises or immediate rejection. He had finally made contact. To save any difficult conversation the idea of the note had worked like a charm. The whole episode seemed totally incoherent with his character; he felt a little out of control. Out of the corner of his eyes he could see Madame 446 energetically looking up words. Half an hour later he heard her chair move; he looked up. She smiled at him and raised her gloved hand in a little wave. He remembered smiling back. When he saw her walking down the central aisle to the exit, he took a long deep breath to relieve the tension.
The next morning he dressed with particular care. He chose clothes that made him look younger. He shaved carefully and added a good splash of after eau-de-cologne. He polished his shoes, took a quick look in the mirror; he was ready for the day ahead. It was a glorious spring morning. He recalled with a grin the conversation he had had with his friend Harry the evening before. He could still hear Harry’s words ringing in his ears. “My dear boy, I told you so, we must meet tomorrow evening at six o’clock in our usual place. I want to hear the sequel to George’s adventure with the mysterious French woman.”
At five past eleven there she was sitting in place 446 dressed as if she was going to a tea party on the lawn of some East Hampton mansion. A light summer blue suit edged with a thin white border, blue gloves to match, a wide brimmed straw hat with a veil that covered half her face. She looked gorgeous. For an hour he just squinted at the blurred typeface in front of him.
At last he heard her chair move; he looked up to see her beckoning him. He followed her out of the library. As they walked down the stairs he started to introduce himself. She elegantly put up a gloved hand and said in a quiet, seductive voice:
“We don’t need introductions, we already know each other Monsieur 426; I am Madame 446.” He was greatly amused and instantly agreed. In this one little phrase she showed a sense of humor that dissipated all his emotional anguish. He followed her down the stairs with a light step. The air around them was pervaded with promise.
Outside in the small outdoor terrace café overlooking Fifth Avenue they found a table under one of the trees; he went to the buffet to fetch two coffees. He looked back across the esplanade; there she was sitting patiently, like a Renoir portrait, awaiting his return. This scene would haunt him over many evenings to come.
There they sat, ignoring the traffic and people around them, and just talked. She told him she lived in Paris, and was an actress, quite well known in certain circles. No, she was not married and had never had children. Her father was American and lived in New York. He had recently died and left a collection of old papers. This explained why she was in the city. She had come to the New York Public library to look up a few words of old French that she didn’t understand. Regrettably she said she was leaving for Paris that evening. She told her tale in a low seductive voice with a charming overtone of a French accent; he listened with a concentration that verged on being mesmerized. Her whole bearing appeared so magically theatrical, she never removed her veil or her gloves and on occasion, whilst she was talking, she lightly touched his arm with her gloved hand as if an intimate physical contact was important. These gestures gave him little electric shocks.
“Before I leave tell me about yourself,” came a pleading voice.
He told her the short history of his life, embellishing it a bit so as to appear more interesting. It must have been half an hour later when she said:
“It has been delightful, I am so glad we met. But, you must excuse me I must really be going. If one day you are in Paris please call on me. I will give you my address.”
From her leather file she took a blank card and wrote Madame 446, Apartment 1A, 50, Rue Saint Georges, Paris 9th. No telephone number.
He looked at the address. “Please give me your telephone number.”
She touched his arm, looked into his eyes and replied. “No, I would prefer you come and see me.”
He was slightly mystified, but at the same time excited. Was this reply a genuine invitation to visit her? Or was it just a gentle way to say good-bye and thank him for the coffee?
She had obviously read his thoughts as she said.
“No I mean it, Monsieur 426”
Before she left she asked him one more question. “Why did you always sit in place 446?”
“It’s my month and year of birth,” he replied.
This produced peals of laughter.
With that she got up and waved good-bye. The last he saw of her was the wide-brimmed hat disappearing down Fifth Avenue. In a stupor he remained sitting at the café a long time. His mind, soul and heart were completely intoxicated by this mysterious French woman.
With Harry that evening the whole conversation was replayed, analyzed, and dissected.
“Dear boy, it’s an obvious invitation to go to Paris. She did not leave a phone number, she didn’t even ask you for your address, you tell me she is single, no children, flirtatious. What more could you desire? No need to write, just go to Paris within the next two weeks and call on her.”
Over the next week it became more and more evident that George’s destiny lay in Paris. He just couldn’t get her out of his mind. He even started sitting in place 446!
A few days later he found himself in the City of Lights, his index finger ringing the bell of Apartment 1A 50, Rue Saint George, Paris 9th. A maid opened the door. She said something in French. He produced a card that read Monsieur 426, New York City. The maid asked him to wait a minute. Within a few seconds she came back, all smiles, asking him to follow her. The maid showed him into a large spacious drawing room with the words, “Madame coming.”
He walked around the room examining its contents with care. The room was furnished in a classical French style, elegant furniture, and impressionist paintings on the walls. There were several glorious bouquets of flowers at various intervals around the room, which gave off a highly perfumed air. He also noticed a series of gilded mirrors placed at strategic points so that one could at most angles admire one’s reflection. There were heavy silk curtains that adorned three large windows overlooking the street. The overall impression was one of femininity and refinement. He recalled taking a seat in an upright Louis XV chair feeling at peace and completely in harmony with his surroundings.
The door opened and he heard her seductive voice exclaim. “Monsieur 426, how delighted I am to see you!”
Entered Madame 446, this time without a veil and gloves. Instead of the blond hair that curled at the nap of the neck, the hair was jet black and swept back fitting tightly to the head. He was slightly taken aback; this she immediately noticed.
“You remembered me as a blond, we girls love giving people surprises.”
This statement was so out of keeping with the conversation they had had outside the New York public library, it jarred George’s sensitivity.
The next little shock he had was in taking her extended hand of greeting. He assumed she would have small dainty hands, but no, the palm of her hand was distinctly broad, and lacked an unmistakable softness.
“Monsieur 426, please sit down, let’s have a morning coffee.” Without waiting for his reply she rang for the maid. As she gave her orders George was surprised by her tone of her voice and the obvious intimacy between the two individuals. At that moment he realized Madame 446 had been acting a part when they last had coffee. He looked across the room and caught her reflection in one of the many mirrors. Maybe it was the sudden shaft of sunlight that swept into the room, or the double reflection or her profile in two mirrors, but what he saw for a brief second in the mirror shocked him to the core: A man was entertaining him!