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The Tale of the Rose


The Tale of the Rose
































































































































  

Benjamin Crémieux had just given his first lecture at the Amigos del Arte. All of Buenos Aires; society was there, and everyone was talking about the revolution.

"They're all very nice," Crémieux confided, "and I'd love to be able to stay on here for several weeks, but they're starting to scare me with their revolution. It seems to amuse them to speak of it. Maybe they think a revolution takes no victims. I was a soldier in the last war, and I don't like the sound of bullets. I'm a calm man by nature.

"Incidentally," he added, stroking his beard, "would you like to come by my hotel this afternoon? I want to introduce you to an interesting friend of mine, a Frenchman. Don't stand me up, whatever you do. I'll be waiting for you."

That afternoon at Crémieux's hotel, there was a cocktail party in his honor. People spoke of one thing or another, but conversation always returned to the revolution, which was beginning to get on my nerves. It occurred to me that this revolution was certainly taking its time in coming.

"And your revolution, when will it be?" someone would say jokingly.

"Mine's happening on Thursday, I'll wager anything you want," another would answer.

I glanced at the clock and decided to leave without saying good-bye to Crémieux, for fear he would try to stop me. As I was putting on my coat, a very tall, dark-haired man burst into the lobby. He came straight toward me and, tugging at the sleeves of my coat to keep me from putting it on, said, "You're leaving already, and I've barely just arrived! Stay a few minutes longer."

"But I've got to go," I said. "People are waiting for me.'

Crémieux hurried over, his teeth gleaming against his black beard, and declared, "Yes, yes: stay. This is the man that I promised you would meet. I warned you on the boat that I was going to introduce you to an aviator you were certain to like because he's a man who loves Latin America as much as you do. He speaks Spanish--badly--but understands it very well."

Turning to face the dark-haired man, his hand on my arm, he said, tugging at his beard, "She's very Spanish, you know, and when a Spanish woman loses her temper, watch out!"

The dark-haired man was so tall, I had to raise my eyes to the sky in order to see him.

"Benjamin, you hadn't told me there would be such pretty women here. I'm very grateful."

Then, turning to me: "Don't leave. Here, have a seat in this armchair."

He pushed me so hard I lost my balance and found myself sitting down. He apologized, but I could no longer protest.

"Who are you, anyway?" I said at last, trying to reach the carpet with the tips of my toes, for I was literally a prisoner in the armchair, which was too deep and too high for me.

"I beg your pardon," Crémieux replied. "I forgot to introduce you. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, pilot and aviator. He'll show you Buenos Aires from above, and the stars too. You see, he adores the stars."

"I don't like to fly," I said. "I don't like things that go fast. I don't like seeing too many faces at once. And I want to leave."

"But faces have nothing to do with stars!" the dark-haired man cried.

"You think our heads are so distant from the stars?"

"Oh!" he exclaimed in surprise. "You have stars in your head, do you?"

"I have yet to meet a man who has seen my true stars," I confessed with a touch of melancholy. "But we're talking nonsense. I told you I don't like to fly. Even walking too fast makes my head spin."

The dark-haired man had not released my arm and was crouching next to my armchair, examining me as if I were some indefinable object. I felt embarrassed and ridiculous, as if I were some kind of doll that could make a noise that resembled speech, or as if the words I spoke were losing their meaning. His hand pressed heavily on my arm, and in spite of myself I felt I was his prey, caged in the velvet armchair, unable to flee. He went on asking me questions and forcing me to answer. I wanted no further communication with him and felt utterly stupid, but something inside me made it impossible to leave. I began to rage against the female nature. I made one more attempt, like a firefly giving off its final burst of light, spirit, strength.

"I'm going," I said gently, struggling to extricate myself from the armchair.

His long arms blocked my way.

"But you know very well that you're coming with me in my plane to see the Rio de la Plata from beyond the clouds. It's fantastically beautiful, you'll see a sunset like no other in the world!"

Crémieux read the fear on my face, the fear of a bird caught in a trap. Wanting to come to my rescue, he declared firmly, "She has to go, Saint-Ex. A group of friends is waiting for her, and I must leave you as well. I have my guests to attend to."

But the dark-haired man was still blocking my way. He spoke in a serious voice now. "I'm sending my chauffeur to pick up your friends so that they can come with us and watch the sunset."

"That's impossible," I said. "There are twelve of them."

"So what? I have all the airplanes you could want. In this country I'm... well, let's say I'm the aviation boss. I'm in charge of the airmail service."

Resistance was futile. He was in command. He made a phone cal1 to my friends; we were all in his hands.

The joy in Crémieux's expression helped me resign myself to my fate. I asked the dark-haired man to sit down and let me catch my breath. I pointed out that everyone was staring at us and that he was keeping me from breathing; I could barely speak.

He laughed wholeheartedly. Then, passing his hand over his cheeks, he swore loudly and said, "I haven't shaved! I'm just back from a flight that lasted two days and two nights."

He disappeared into the hotel barbershop and came back ten minutes later, smooth-checked and merry as a child. "Crémieux," he shouted, "next time you invite a pretty woman you must let me know in advance!"

"Oh really, no one let you know?" Crémieux asked pointedly.

"Let's have a drink, you and I, I'm thirsty," he said to me. "And forgive me if I talk too much, I haven't seen a soul for almost a week. I'll tell you stories about Patagonia, about birds and monkeys smaller than my fist."

He took my hands in his. "How small they are!" he exclaimed. "You know, I can read palms."

He kept my hands for quite a while. I tried to pull away, but he didn't want to let go. "No, I'm studying them. The lines in your palm are parallel. You'll have a double life. I don't know how to explain it, but they're all parallel. No, I don't believe your character is entirely secret. But something has marked you. It was probably your country, the fact that you were transplanted from Central America to Europe."

Suddenly I was thrilled by his attention, but still I tried to resist. "I really don't like flying in planes," I said. "I don't like speed. I prefer to sit quietly in a corner. It must be because of my country. El Salvador is a land of earthquakes; between one minute and the next you can find yourself with the place Vendôme on your doorstep."

"Well, then," he said, laughing, "I'll go very slowly in my plane. I'm having a bus pick up your friends. They're staying at the Hotel Occidental; we're bringing them here for you. Look, the ones who agreed to join us are already here!"

*

Everything was arranged, and twenty minutes later we were all jammed in a car en route to the airfield and the promised sunset. It took a good hour to drive from Buenos Aires to Pacheco, and in the crush of the car I listened to this dark-haired man tell me the story of his life, of his night flights.

"You know, what you're telling me is so beautiful," I said to him, "you should write it down."

"Very well, I'll write, for you. I've already written a book, did you know? A memoir of my first airmail flights. I wrote it five years ago, when I was young."

"But five years is nothing!" I said.

"Five years is a long time. I was very young, in the Sahara Desert.... The book is called Southern Mail.* We'll pass by my place on the way back, and I'll give you a copy. I t was a complete flop. I sold three copies, one to my aunt, another to my sister, and another to a friend of my sister's. Three... People laughed at me, but if you say my stories are good, I'll write them down. I'll do it for you alone, a very long letter. "

I was the only woman in the car. Madame E., who was supposed to come with us, had begged off, claiming that the road out to the airfield was too dusty. Saint-Exupéry talked and talked with tremendous enthusiasm. His images had extraordinary charm, and there was a wild note of truth to even his most fantastical stories. Crémieux asked him questions, and he had an inexhaustible supply of answers. He said again that he hadn't spoken for a week and deluged us with a thousand tales of aviation.

We finally reached the airfield. A beautiful, silvery airplane was waiting for us. I wanted to ride in the passengers' cabin, but he insisted that I sit next to him in the copilot's seat. The cockpit was separated from the cabin by heavy curtains. I don't know how men could fly in those airplanes. He closed the curtains. I stole a glance at his hands: beautiful, intelligent, wiry hands, both delicate and strong; they were like the hands painted by Raphael, and his character was revealed in them. I was afraid, but I trusted him with my life.

When we took off, the muscles in his face relaxed. We were flying over plains and water. My stomach was queasy. I felt myself go pale and gave a deep sigh. The altitude plugged up my ears, and I wanted to yawn. Suddenly he cut off the throttle. "Have you flown many times before?"

"No. This is the first time," I said shyly.

"Do you like it?" he asked, looking at me in amusement.

"No, it's strange. Just strange."

He pulled the joystick down in order to speak into my ear. Then he pulled it back up again, then down again to talk to me some more. He teased and frightened us by doing loop-the-loops. I smiled.

He rested his hand on my knee and, leaning his cheek toward me, said, "Will you kiss me?"

"But Monsieur de Saint-Exupéry, you know that in my country we kiss people we love, and only when we know them very well. I'm a widow, a very recent widow. How can you ask me to kiss you?"

He nibbled at his lip to hold back a smile.

"Kiss me or I'll drown you," he said, making as if to plunge the plane into the ocean.

I bit my handkerchief in anger. Why did I have to kiss a man I'd only just met? The joke struck me as being in very bad taste.

"Is this how you persuade women to kiss you?" I asked. "It won't work with me. I've had enough of this flight. Land the plane, please; I'll be very glad when you do. I have just lost my husband, and I am sad."

"Oh no, we're falling!"

"I don't much care."

Then he gazed at me, cut off the power, and said, "I know what it is. You won't kiss me because I'm ugly."

I saw tears like pearls rolling from his eyes down onto his necktie, and my heart melted with tenderness. I leaned over as best I could and kissed him. He kissed me back violently, and we stayed like that for two or three minutes while the plane rose and fell as he cut the power off and revved it back up again. All the passengers were sick. We could hear them complaining and moaning behind us.

"No, you're not ugly," I said, "but you're too strong for me. You're hurting me. You don't kiss me; you bite me, you eat me. I want to land now."

"Forgive me," he said. "I don't know much about women. I love you because you're a child and you're scared."

"You're going to hurt me in the end. You're quite mad."

"I only seem to be. I always do whatever I want, even when it's bad for me."

"Listen, I can't shout like this any longer. Let's go back down to earth. I don't feel well, and I don't want to faint."

"That's not possible," he said. "Look, down there, the Rio de la Plata."

"Right, that's the Rio de la Plata, but I want to see the city."

"I hope you're not airsick."

"A little."

"Here, take this pill. Stick out your tongue."

He put the pill in my mouth and squeezed my hands nervously. "What tiny hands! A child's hands. Give them to me forever!"

"But I don't want to have stumps at the end of my arms."

"What a silly fool you are! I'm asking you to marry me. I love your hands. I want to keep them all to myself."

"But you've known me only a few hours."

"You'll see," he said. "You will marry me."

We landed at last; all of our friends were sick. Crémieux had vomited all over his shirt, and Viñes felt completely unable to give his concert.

Saint-Exupéry carried me to the car. We were all three driven to his house. All my life I will remember that drive. We passed the windows of jewelers' shops, sparkling with precious stones--emeralds, immense diamonds, bracelets--and boutiques with feathers and tiny stuffed birds. It really was a Paris in miniature.... It reminded me of the rue de Rivoli.

We arrived and took an elevator up to Saint-Exupéry's bachelor quarters, where we had some coffee and then lay down wherever we could--Viñes and Crémieux on the same sofa, I in Saint-Exupéry's bed. My head was spinning, and my stomach was still upset. I no longer knew where I was. I curled up tight, and he read me a passage from Southern Mail. I could barely take in a word of it and finally blurted, "Please, would you leave me alone for a moment? I'm hot, I'd like to take a shower."

He went into the other room. I took a shower, and he gave me a bathrobe. I lay back down. He came and lay beside me, saying, "Don't be afraid, I won't rape you." Then he added, "I like to be liked. I don't like to steal things. I like to be given them."

I smiled. "Listen," I said. "I'll soon be back in Paris, and in spite of everything our flight will be a nice memory. It's just that right now my friends are all sick and I am too, a bit."

"Here," he said. "Have another pill."

I took the pill and fell asleep. I woke up during the night, and he gave me some hot broth. Then he had me watch a film he had made. "This is what I watch after my flights," he told me. The images were accompanied by a strange music, Indian songs. I was utterly worn out. This man was too overwhelming; his inner world was too rich. In some vague way I informed him that Viñes was giving a concert that evening and would have to be taken to the theater. He assured me that Viñes was fast asleep, that it was three o'clock in the morning, and that I should be a good girl and go back to sleep, too.

When I awoke, I was in his arms.


* Saint-Exupéry's first book, Courrier-Sud, a barely fictionalized account of his experiences as a mail pilot, was published in France in 1928 and appeared in English in 1933.
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Excerpted from The Tale of the Rose by Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry. Copyright © 2001 by Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.