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