Friday, May 20, 2011

Forgotten Story: "The Tasting Machine" by Paul Cain


Editor's Note: Here's a story I've waited at least 25 years to read. Of course, when I first heard of it, there were still seven hardboiled Paul Cain stories I couldn't get my hands on, so this one, published under the screenwriting pseudonym Peter Ruric, was a low priority. Now that I've at last read (and re-read) all the others, this elusive tale has assumed new importance.

We are all indebted to Mr. Jeremy Burwell for providing this story to the Almanack. Thanks, Jeremy! May the Bird of Paradise never fly up your nose. From the scanned text Jeremy sent, I retyped and reformatted, so any typos (except those that may have appeared in the original magazines) are mine. There were several words I was unfamiliar with, and I didn't check to make sure they were legit. I just typed 'em as I saw 'em.

Appearing 13 years after his last Black Mask tale, this was the final published short story by Mr. Cain/Ruric/Sims. I read somewhere on the 'net that there may exist a box of unpublished stories (rather like Dr. Watson's battered old dispatch box?). Cool, if true, but we'd best not hold our breath.

"The Tasting Machine" was published in two parts, in the November and December, 1949 issues of Gourmet, The Magazine of Good Living. Written for cultured folk rather than bloodthirsty detective fans, it's a far cry from the lean, super-tough style we're used to. To put the story in context, I've sprinkled in most of the original ads that accompanied the text. Most, you'll note, are hustling various sorts of booze. The message seems to be that "good living" required copious amounts of expensive alcohol.

Each of these issues contained a short column called Spécialités de la Maison by James Beard, who was also an Associate Editor. The November issue featured what looked like another short story, "Tortillas and Romance" by Barney Gallant. I resisted the urge to read it. Other articles included such stuff as "An Epicurean Tour of the French Provinces, Part IX, Brittany," by Samuel Chamberlain.

The December issue had something called "Hullo, dis Place" by Leslie Charteris. Told in breezy first-person, it looked like fiction, but on closer inspection seemed to be more of a gourmet's travelogue of the Bahamas. It included detailed recipes for such stuff as Conch Salad, Conch Fritters, Bahamian Fish Chowder, Deviled Crabs and Bahamian Green Turtle Pie. Sadly, no recipe for Bahamian Chili Dog.

The illustrations, credited to someone named Irving Docktor, each spanned two pages, and are somewhat distorted where they dive into the gutter of a bound volume, but you get the idea.

Enough jabber from me. Here, at long last, is "The Tasting Machine."


The Tasting Machine
by Peter Ruric

In fine weather, of which there was a spate that summer, it was the whim of M. Etienne de Rocoque to emerge from his restaurant in East Sixty-first Street at exactly six-thirteen of an evening and stroll west to Fifth Avenue, south to Sixtieth, east to Park Avenue, north to Sixty-first, and go back to the restaurant and home. It had been discovered by long and diligent experiment that the time he now habitually chose for these somewhat circumscribed excursions was the approximate sixteen minutes between the last home-hurrying scragglers of the commercial day and the first diversion-bent explorers of the night: the streets were comparatively deserted.

He was invariably accompanied by Bubu, a Nubian dwarf, who trotted about two paces behind and a little to the left of his master carrying a narghile from which the latter drew long, deeply pleasurable puffs of green Surinam tobacco, dispensed them in great green clouds upon the silky evening air. They were—Etienne globular and enormous in polka-dotted seersucker and Persian slippers, wielding a vast palmetto fan, Bubu tiny and tatterdemalion in a ragged cloth-of-gold jerkin, his eager little ape-face glistening like an eggplant—a striking and somehow heart-warming pair.

Etienne’s immensity had confounded medical science, most especially biochemistry, for a long, long time. Early in life he had worn his liver and certain other gastrically essential equipment down to tenuous and entirely decorative nubbins, had at the time we now observe him subsisted on thin corn-meal gruel and distilled water for upwards of eleven years, but he still tipped the scale at three hundred and three pounds in his shantung shorts. This anomaly had lead at least one Harvard professor, nameless here, who had devoted most of his mature life to protein research, shrilly to cry “No!” and fling himself backwards into the Charles River.

On the evening with which this tale is most intimately concerned, a wisteria cab drew close to the curb as Etienne and Bubu were waiting for the light to change at Madison Avenue, a man wearing a curly, obviously false beard thrust his head out and went “His-s-st!” Etienne, after a brief glance, continued across the street, west; he never spoke to strangers.

As they crossed Park Avenue on the homeward lap the wisteria cab again stopped directly in front of them with a thin shriek of brakes, and the man again popped his head out of the window hoarsely to whisper, “His-s-st! I muzt speag to you!” His accent was deep Balkan Peninsula, darkly belying his blond beard and what Etienne now, on second inspection, saw to be an even blonder wig. For answer, he exhaled a thick cloud of green smoke which momentarily obscured the entire cab and when it had cleared away, they were alone. Bubu giggled soundlessly; they went home.

There, doffing his slippers and wilted seersucker, Etienne enjoyed a tepid shower, then wandered in monstrous nakedness to a front window of his living quarters above the restaurant, peeped; as he had more than half suspected the cab was across the street. He snapped his fingers. Bubu, slicing a pomegranate in the kitchen, two floors below in the rear of the house, though mute, was gifted with preternaturally acute hearing, jumped at first snap and galloped up the stairs.

“Go”—Etienne indicated the cab—“Go and bid the bearded stranger enter.”

Bubu grimaced up at him in stunned wonder for moment and, after a simple handspring, clattered down the stair. Gertrude, the myna bird, who had been indulging in unaccustomed silence since Etienne’s return, now, after a deep sigh, sang out, “Man the pumps, men—we’re heading into a sou’-wester.” There was often a certain incongruity in Gerturde’s pronouncements, in that while her words and usually her sentiments were most uncouth, her diction was perfect—perhaps a little too much so.

Etienne watched Bubu scuttle across the street and make signs to the stranger, then crossed to sit on a wide divan; in a matter of moments the stair creaked—a touch ominously, he though—Gertrude gave a thick and obscene guffaw, and Bubu, bowing to the floor, waved the bearded man into the room.

He was a young man, thin of shank and broad of shoulder—a tall young man with a kind of steely beauty about him. He wore a simple black sack suit, black sneakers, a plain white shirt, and a narrow black four-in-hand tie, carried a large squarish object wrapped in Christmas paper: a bit of an anachronism because it was the middle of July. Etienne inclined his head towards a nearby chair, and the young man gratefully sank into it, put the obviously heavy package on the floor between them.

“I am moz happy you decide to speag wiz me now,” he gurgled, “elz I ‘ave to bozzer you day after day until you do.”

Etienne nodded almost imperceptibly. “You may as well remove your whiskers,” he suggested, “and your wig.” He picked up the big palmetto fan, fanned. “It is very warm.”

“Eet eez indeed,” said the young man. “Zank you, zank you!” And whipping off his blondness he shoved it into his pocket, disclosing a long tanned Greco face, also bearded, but blue-black, a cap of shiny blue-black hair.

“The accent, too, is obviously a strain,” Etienne went on after a moment. “It is entertaining at first but would wear on me terribly in a little time. Shall we dispense with it?”

“Very well, sir,” the young man said in perfect English, a touch stiffly.

“And now”—Etienne’s roving, faintly amused eyes had come to rest upon the gaudily sealed and beribboned package—“and now, what, in an exceedingly banal but blessedly short phrase, have we here?”

“Ah! . . . ” The young man leaned slowly forward until his long nose almost touched a kind of conical projection protruding from the top of the package; his dusky gaze was fixed upon the small still life—a pear, a pipe, a mandolin—that Braque himself had tattooed upon Etienne’s left chest these many years agone. “Ah, Monsieur de Rocoque,” he intoned breathlessly, “we have here the answer to all you problems, all your prayers—the dearest wish of you heart. . . . We have here,” his nose grazed the conical projection, “the Tasting Machine . . . ”

#

Etienne’s, it must be stated somewhat parenthetically here, is not a restaurant in the ordinary sense. No one can buy a meal there—a plat, a sweet, nor even a glass of wine. Etienne de Rocoque, Chef de Cuisine Transcendantale, is infinitely beyond being a restraurateur and has so been for many years. His is a clientele conspicuous for its far-flung sparseness, an even hundred pampered stomachs scattered about the earth. But once each month or so he plans and cooks and serves one dinner, or one luncheon, or, perhaps, even a breakfast, and to that boon are invited two or three—five, on a really festive occasion and never more than seven—of the fortunate few who grace his guest list.

From Monteux comes, mayhap, the Duc d’Ange, Montfiore Toeplitz from Madrid, Ling Hang Lo from Chungking, The Hon. Jezebel Gapeingham, O.B.W. from Bath. And Etienne, in this time, redolent of steam and sweat and spices, lopes about his kitchen plucking gastronomic pearls, one after the other, out of his pots and pans and ovens to set before these favored four and finally, wilting with joy, presides at table—to taste, alas, only their pleasure.

There is his cross. It is not so much that he cannot share the viands, these fabled wines with them—the pain of that is dulled by years—but that his whole life is limited now, designed for, geared to, actually dependent upon their appreciation of his work, their grunts and groans and low-pitched moans of ecstasy. Here is the crux of the matter, then—whisper it softly, softly—even the most superlatively attuned palate sickens of wonder, in time. . . . There is his cross. . . .

#

Etienne had paled. This, a phenomenon of whiteness which, even when he was fully clothed, had been known to affect the beholder with a kind of nameless terror, was now, in his huge nudity, little short of stupefying. The young man drew back, closed his eyes. Bubu ran to hide in a corner; Gertrude hummed a bar of “Throw out the Life-line,” delicately belched. Then Etienne’s blood surged to his veins again and he pinkened back to life.

“What do you know, dark youth,” he demanded in a thunderous whisper, “of my problems, my prayers, my heart’s dearest wish?”

“That which I do not know I have divined,” said the young man quietly, opening his eyes. “Such is the frailty of flesh that you have come now, finally, to founder in perfection.”

Etienne pondered this at length. Here, in a simple and felicitous turn of phrase, this extraordinary fellow had named his malady. Perfection. . . .

“And how,” he slowly lowered his stare to the package, “and what has this contraption to do with me?”

“Everything.”

“And how did you come by it?”

“I invented it.”

The young man hand leaned forward to tear off almost savagely the ribbons, the bright paper; a glossily dark gray box resembling a small phonograph was revealed, its simplicity marred only by four jointed metal arms on one side, folded now, at the extremities of which were deftly welded a knife, a fork, a spoon, and a kind of two-pronged hook. There was a small round aperture in the same side, and the conical projection on top, which now turned out to be a plexiglass tube containing a single hair-thin filament.

“I invented it,” the young man repeated, then breathed devoutly, “for you.”

Bubu had turned from the corner, and Gertrude swooped to light upon his shoulder; together they approached to examine the gift with timid skepticism. It is typical of Etienne that he did not laugh, nor smile, nor anything, but accepted the validity of the machine as easily as he would have accepted the color of an Oncidium orchid—not so much from naïveté as from a kind of congenital innocence of cynicism.

And now, although the young man had pressed no buttons, turned no knobs, Etienne momently became aware that the machine was working. There was a deep but gentle whirring sound and slowly, very slowly, one of the metal arms—the one with the fork—was unfolding, reaching out and—snick! it had suddenly speared the largest, ripest, and most luscious grape from a cluster on a nearby salver. Quickly it carried this dripping, glittering morsel to the aperture and popped it in; the filament glowed, ever so faintly, and then—Etienne felt his whole soul shudder slightly with gratification—the machine sighed. . . .

Softly, languidly, it heaved a tiny sigh of satisfaction.

“Observe that, having chosen the best grape on the bunch, it spurns the rest,” the young man murmured. “It, too, is designed only for perfection . . . ”

But now the two-pronged hood was reaching towards the salver, seized, with the speed of light, a magnificently unblemished tangerine. The knife went snicker-snee and peeled it in a twinkling. It, too, disappeared into the aperture, and the machine moaned gently, slaveringly smacked its internal lips.

Bubu clapped his heavily bejeweled hands tinklingly in small Nubian delight. Gertrude whistled shrilly, warbled, “Damn my eyes—but that’s a pretty sight!” Etienne rose. The young man stirred, smiled up at him.

“No longer,” he crooned, “shall you be subject to the idiosyncrasies of your patrons’ moods, Monsieur: quirks of digestion, ravages of time and repletion upon the taste buds and the gastric system. No longer need your spirit cringe beneath the human equation with all its foibles and fallibilities . . . ” He rose. “The machine is infallible. Its taste is exquisite. And”—his lips curved for a split second to something almost frighteningly like a sneer— “It will never wear out . . . ”

They stood there. The thin suggestion of a sneer had swiftly gone from the young man’s mouth, and he was smiling almost tenderly. Gertrude chortled, screeched “Damn my bloody eyes!” and flew back to her perch. The cuckoo clock on the floor below distantly caroled seven.

“This is”—Etienne groped for adequate words— “this, indubitably, is beyond adequate words. . . . But how did you know? And what, dark youth, is your name?”

“I divine . . . ” The young man extracted a square of cobalt linen from his sleeve and gently blew his nose. “And my name is Vincent.”

“If you have divined this”—Etienne had squatted to examine more closely the wondrous mechanism; it was silent now, its filament cold, its arms demurely folded— “then, Vincent, you have divined that, though penniless, I am vastly rich in jewels and doodads and sundry tokens that admirers of my art have left for me.”

The young man nodded, his face expressionless.

Etienne rose again and stroked his jowls. “My treasure chests and coffers bulge and overflow with diamonds, rubies, square-cut emeralds. Ask what you will.”

The young man slowly shook his head.

“But,” Etienne fell back apace, “I cannot accept this miracle as a gift!”

The young man stopped shaking his head; his voice was barely audible:

“I had thought, rather, of a trade, Monsieur.”

Etienne beamed. “A trade! Excellent! Then name it!”

The young man’s eyes were fixed upon the small still life that Braque had wrought.

“I had thought, Monsieur,” he said, “of Mercedes . . . ”

There was a moment of fraught silence. Then Bubu hid his face in his hands, sank to the floor, and frightfully, soundlessly sobbed; Gertrude screamed raucously, “Man the lifeboats, men! Stand by to abandon ship!” Etienne? Etienne was as one turned to stone; his lips framed the word, but no sound came forth.

The young man whispered, “Mercedes,” smiled, then stooped to pluck a single grape from the salver and consume it.

“Mercedes . . .  ”

In the immediately ensuing three and one-half seconds, an aeon of time, a universe of space, a billion thoughts crowded through Etienne’s brain, simmered away to these:

How did this young upstart know of Mercedes—and what? Mercedes, whose skin was as the petals of the moonflower, whose hair was Thracian silk, whose mouth was carven, yielding coral. Mercedes, whom he, Etienne de Rocoque, had, after wading through veritable seas of blood, snatched from the harem of a mighty caliph at the age of three and reared in luxury these full fifteen years, inviolate from the world. Mercedes, who even now he could hear splashing happily in her perfumed bath. Never had she set her perfect foot beyond his door—yet this unspeakable poltroon had mouthed her name? How? How?

And then he saw that Bubu, feigning still to sob, had crawled behind the villainous youth and now was winking up at his master invitingly. All he need do is push—and push he did; Vincent, taken entirely unawares, stumbled back with one of the unintelligible oaths favored by knaves and varlets, turned a highly unlikely double somersault, and smacked his skull smartly against the newel post.

“Quickly,” bellowed Etienne, “into the freezer with him!” And moving with well-nigh incredible speed, he snatched up the youth’s limp upper body, Bubu grabbed his feet, and they clattered down the stairs.

Gertrude slowly raised one pink and wrinkled talon to scratch her ear. “Glory be to God,” she muttered. She sat thinking for a time in silence, jumped when she heard the door of the freezer slam two floors below. Then, conscious of something moving in the room, she turned, looked down; the Tasting Machine, by some means of locomotion known only to God and its inventor, had crept across to just beneath her perch, its fork was poised, whish-t-t  through the air at the exact moment Gertrude took wing, snipped out one of her tail feathers.

She alighted on the topmost branch of the rubber plant and, breathing heavily, watched it in frightened fascination.

“Glory be to God,” she muttered. “Glory be to God . . . ”

#

In Etienne’s kitchen and pantries adjacent thereto, there were seven refrigerators. There was one, to begin little, with a capacity of a shade under one hundred and two cubic inches, limited to caviar and the eleven perfect daisies which he affected as a centerpiece at his rare dinners. There was one for ices, sherbets, mousses, and star sapphires (he had a theory that sapphires are at their best at 16.6 degrees Centigrade and always kept his at that temperature), one for certain cheeses, one for fish, one for fruit, and one for miscellaneous. And there was the Crucifreeze. . . .

This formidable compartment, the largest and coldest of the lot, was the masterpiece of L. Shiver & Sons. Hung there in rigid, frost-glazed putrefaction a brace of woodcock that Etienne himself had shot in the late summer of 1924. Hung there a collection of meat and game to slaver the mouth of the gods: goose and grouse, bear and bull, moose and manatee, teal and terrapin. Hung there, now, between a haunch of venison and a neatly halved wild boar: Vincent.

The temperature in the Crucifreeze averaged thirty-two degrees below zero, and even in the moment they were within, hanging Vincent up by his heels, Etienne’s nakedness turned a pale and rather interesting azure. They hurried out, and closed and double-locked the door. Bubu scurried around in small, tight circles in sheer excitement, and Etienne, sitting himself down tailor-fashion on the meat block, fell to examining the objects that had fallen from Vincent’s pockets when they turned him upside down.

There was a business card:

Vincent Vincent Inc.
“You name it—We invent it.”
Purple Building
808 Lexington Avenue  RH 4-6509

There were four sonnets “To Mercedes,” a package of Home Run Cigarettes, a nickel, three dimes, and an Egyptian penny. There were two keys tied together with sulphur-yellow ribbon: one was to Etienne’s back door, the other was to Mercedes’ apartment, which comprised the second floor of the house.

Etienne goggled down at these in agape amazement. It must be understood that no man but Etienne and Bubu (who didn’t count, because he was a eunuch) had looked upon Mercedes’ beauty—and lived—since he had abducted her, at the tender age of three, from the seraglio of Yussuf Ben in Khur. True, he allowed her to fly her kite from the roof in pleasant weather, but she was always heavily veiled and . . .

The kite! He leaped from the meat block and dashed up the back stairs, snatched up a vast towel in passing, wrapped it around his middle, and emerged on the roof. There it was, two hundred yards or so to the north, northeast—the Purple Building! What simpler than for Mercedes to choose a day when the wind was right to communicate, kitewise, with Vincent Vincent, if she so chose? He staggered back and would have fallen if Bubu, who had followed close behind, had not supported him, and for the third time that evening Etienne paled.

“Perfidy,” he piteously wailed, “thy name is woman!” Leaning on Bubu’s shoulder, he reeled back down the stair.

#

It must here be made of record, somewhat painful record, that Etienne, king among chefs, was a veritable emperor among lovers. The words he whispered into Mercedes’ shelllike ears were pure poetry; each morning, noon, and night his impassioned wooing discovered some new expression to delight her heart, bauble to adorn her white perfection, outré and exquisite confection to tempt her tongue. Except, and now we come to the painful part, except for one little thing.

When, in the carefree years of his extreme youth’s extremity, Etienne had by dint of Gargantuan eating and drinking bouts destroyed his digestion, he had also, in spectacular excess of amorous dalliance, played frightful havoc with his glandular organization. And so, perforce—it must be faced—his well-nigh perfect lovemaking was only well-nigh perfect.

#

At Mercedes’ door he dismissed Bubu with a heart-rending smile, unlocked the door with Vincent’s key, and crossed the tiny cuneus foyer to the bedchamber. Mercedes was still in her bath. He stood a moment listening to her laughter, listening to her sweet voice lifted in a childish song, then crossed to the eastern window. It commanded a perfect view of the Purple Building. In the bottom drawer of a commode he found a Bluejacket’s Manual of Semaphore Signaling, a pair of binoculars, tracing paper that bore the outline of two keys. The evidence was complete and irrefutable. But one thing more he must discover—had the keys been used?

He sat down on a vermilion taffeta tuffet and considered ways and means of Mercedes’ execution. Shooting, stabbing, blunt instruments were emphatically out of the question. To mar the wondrously wrought ivory of that beloved body! Etienne shuddered, gulped in pain. Poison, perhaps, something swift and pleasant to the taste. And then she came into the doorway, fresh from her bath, still with the tinkling song upon her lips, and he looked upon her beauty and knew that he could never murder her.

“Darling,” she said, and her voice was a golden bell, “I am of delight to see you.” She crossed to him and stooped and kissed his forehead. Her mouth was like warm silk.

“Have I been good to you? he asked, a little tremulously.

“You have been to me an angel,” she said simply. “You are the kindest and best man in all the world, and with all my heart I love you.”

“Have I ever denied you anything?” The Braque still life beneath his left nipple quivered slightly. “Had you not but to wish for Richebourg ’04, or spun-glass slippers, or”—he bobbed his head at her bed in the opposite corner—“a platinum-mounted trundle bed?”

“You have denied me nothing. You are my bounteous and most munificent lord and master.” Her eyes had fallen on the damning evidence which he had spread out on the tuffet. “And now, because of mistaken jealousy, I am about to die.”

“Mistaken!” It was a broken cry, from a breaking heart. “Mistaken?”

She sat down beside him, tenderly fondled his toes. “Mistaken, my love. It all began so innocently, Etienne, almost in jest, this gentle nightmare.”

“Jest!”

She nodded. Her enormous eyes flooded with tears for a moment. She dried them with a tiny kerchief, snuffled delicately, went on:

“One day, less than a month agone, my kite, caught in a capricious down draft, disappeared into an open window of the building there, and when I drew it down, someone had written upon it; these were the words: “Veiled enchantress of the roof, I am a poor inventor dry of inspiration and close to perishing. Let me look but once upon your face before I go. I ask no more!”

“What harm, thought I,” she continued, “what harm in granting this poor devil his dying wish, and so, only for instant, mind you, I lowered my veil. That, I thought, was an end of it.”

“What harm,” Etienne echoed hollowly. “What harm!”

“But no.” Mercedes rose, paced to the door and back in obvious agitation. Dear Allah, thought Etienne, what loveliness. “No,” she said, sinking down beside him, “a few days later my kite once more—what Fates and Furies direct these things?—swooped to that window, and this time he wrote, ‘A plot’s afoot against your master, Etienne de Rocoque, and we must join in a counterplot to foil it!’ ”

“A plot!” Etienne half rose, sank back.

“Aye. And dangling from my kite were these.” She indicated the binoculars, manual, tracing paper. “Through infinite trial and error, I learned to communicate with him by semaphore from the window there. He swore that if I breathed a word to you about this dark conspiracy against you, all was lost. He told his name, learned mine.”

“The plot, then, what of that?” Etienne cried. “Who was involved?”

Mercedes shook her head. “I begin now to believe that it was only a figment, a tissue of lies,” she said. “Because,” she lowered her eyes, and her whole delightful body flushed a fragile pink, “a week ago he sent me a sonnet.”

“By wigwag?”

She nodded.

“The keys, then,” he demanded gently, “what of the keys?”

“That was before,” she murmured. “He said that he must have some means of gaining entrance to the house, to—these were his words—‘Nip the fiendish designs upon de Rocoque in the bud, just as they are about to flower.' ”

Etienne sighed. “My child, my sumptuous child,” he patted her hand, “you have been taken in.”

“I know it now!” She leaped to her feet and danced a little dance. “I know it now, my own true love, my king, my benefactor. But I did it all for you! Can you forgive?”

“The keys,” Etienne’s voice was barely audible, “he never used the keys?”

“Never.” Her innocence was a sword, a shield, a banner. “Never!”

Etienne was smiling, went on in a shaky whisper: “And the Tasting Machine. What of that?”

She stopped in midpirouette and gazed at him in puzzlement. “The what?”

“This varlet Vincent followed me home a little while ago. He had a machine that he said he had invented especially for me, and when I asked its price, he said”—Etienne’s voice broke a touch—“its price was you.”

Her petaled face darkened a half hue with anger, curved to a kind of agony. She caught her breath. “The knave,” she muttered in a small spasm of loathing. “The unspeakable blackguard! What have you done with him?”

Etienne rose. “I have put him away,” he said, “in a place where he may dwell for a little while upon the bitter lees of vanity and youthful presumption. For only a little while, my sweet. Then I shall burden him with gold and jewels and send him on his way.”

“And the Machine?”

“It is an interesting novelty. At some time after nine I am expecting guests, the first in several months. It may amuse them.” He crossed to the door.

“I want to see it!” She ran t him, clapping her hands in childish joy. “I must see it!”

“Later,” he said, and he stooped to kiss her nose. “Later, my one . . . ”

Then he went out through the tiny foyer, closed and locked the door.

#

When Etienne came to the front room of his own apartment on the third floor, the day was duskening, there was the small drum of distant thunder. He turned on the lights and saw, to his startled amazement, that Gertrude had fainted, was hanging upside down from a branch of the rubber plant. Swiftly and gently he disengaged her clenched talons and, hurrying into the bathroom, waved a phial of smelling salts beneath her beak. After a time she opened her eye.

“What is it, my saffron beauty?” he purred solicitously.

She opened her other eye and regarded him dully, expressionlessly. She said no word. He released her and she fluttered out, through the corridor and down the back stairs. Etienne frowned, shrugged, fell to dressing. As was his wont when expecting guests, he wore a belted smock, pantaloons of stiffly starched white duck, a tall and extravagantly flared chef’s cap. His chest glittered with jeweled medals—only a small part of his collection, but enough to cover an area of one square cubit.

After a last more or less resigned glance at his reflection in the mirror, he went back to the front room and, picking up the entirely quiescent Tasting Machine, carried it down to the Salle à Manger, placed it on one end of the table, and went on to the kitchen. Bubu was peeling a mangosteen; Gertrude was nowhere to be seen. Etienne peeked into an oven, uncovered a steaming pot and sniffed, gave its contents a reflective stir.

“Where is that absurd bird?” he finally demanded.

Bubu turned a fast back somersault, gestured toward the garden.

“She swooned,” Etienne continued, “swooned dead away. It’s probably the heat.”

He went then to the big slate upon which, only as a reminder, he sometimes chalked his menus, scrawled:

Anguilles au Gris, Vert, et Rouge
Anchois Robespierre
Oeufs de Rocs en Gelée
Velouté d’Eperlans Central Park
Agulhacreola au Sauce Nacre
Sylphides à la Crème de Lion Marin
Endive Belge au Goo
Grives, Becfigues, et Béguinettes
et Merles de Corse Bubu

Bubu, avidly watching, swelled with pride. Etienne must indeed be in a magnificent mood thus to honor him in naming a brand new dish. Etienne cocked his head and grinned at Bubu’s glee, scrawled on:

Hamburger 61st Street
Coots avec Leeks       Navets Farcis Bleu
Ballotines de Oison Mercedes

He stopped and was thoughtful, went to an open window that gave upon the garden. The sky was writhing with thunder clouds and, by an abrupt flash of lightning, he saw Gertrude in the magnolia tree abstractedly tearing a large white blossom into bits. He whistled, but she only glanced fleetingly, fleetingly, in his direction, then lifted her head and bayed mournfully at the darkling, tumultuous sky. It was an eerie sound.

“Bright-feathered imbecile,” he muttered tenderly. “She’ll get soaking wet in another minute.”

A few drops of rain pattered on the sill. He whistled once more, crossed back to the slate, and added:

Salade de Concombres, Ambergris
et Choux Jaune
Jambon à la Prague
Sous la Cendre Teak
Fraises Rêve de Bébé Blague
Pêche Attila
Bavaroise Gertrude

He was thoughtful again, crossed to the smallest of the refrigerators, and gently removed the eleven perfect daisies which would serve as an epergne. Opening the refrigerator, he thought of Vincent. It would not do to leave that brash youth too long in the Crucifreeze. Perhaps another half hour of chilled meditation upon his sins would suffice, then Etienne would free him, pay him handsomely for the Tasting Machine, and send him packing. It was well for Vincent—he smiled wryly—that he was not a vindictive man.

There was a bowl of caviar in the small refrigerator, the luminous, absinthe-greenish kind. It had been flown from Baku the previous day. It occurred to Etienne that it might be as well to test the Machine once more before his guests arrived. He took the bowl into the dining room and placed it on the table; almost immediately the Machine began to hum, whirr softly, ever so softly. The spoon arm slowly unfolded, reached out and—snup!—engulfed a great mouthful, snatched it to the aperture, popped it in. The filament began to glow, and then, sibilantly, sensually, unmistakably, the Machine chortled with pleasure.

Etienne heaved a great and beatific snortle. It worked, and perfectly. He carried the bowl back into the kitchen and put it in the small refrigerator. The Machine’s voice followed him for a moment with thin whines of anguish. That was as well, he decided. Let it be ravenous for the feast to come.

He listened then. He could hear Bubu in the cellar—clink and stumble, rumble, plink—as he chose wines to accompany dinner; he could hear the rain outside, a tenuous shuffle of thunder, Gertrude wetly baying at the sky; he could hear the distant suff of tires on Park Avenue.

And then he heard another sound—a slam, a click, a closed door. He wondered for a little while where it came from, then abruptly dropped his spoon and closed a pot, hurried to the Salle. The door was closed, locked.

He pounded on it lightly, then more heavily, then hard. A horrid sweat grew suddenly upon his flesh.

“Mercedes!” he shouted. “Are you there?”

There was no answer and no sound. He smiled a pea-green smile and tried to pull himself together. His nerves . . .  Obviously an errant breeze had slammed the door and the lock had sprung. He simply needed to find the key, and . . .

The key, the only key, was inside, and this a heavy, practically impregnable door. Ah, well, a locksmith . . .

“Bubu,” he called, but Bubu was in the cellar, and thunder quenched his voice. Thinking of keys, how could he have thought that Mercedes could be here? He himself had locked her door.

From beyond the door there came—or did he only imagine it?—a faint, far hum, a tremulous, low-pitched moan of—what was it like, anticipation?

Etienne whirled, rushed up the stairs. Mercedes’ door was open. He shouted for her, shrieked her name. A crash of thunder worried away to silence. Dashing back down the stairs he fell, described a spinning parabola, and landed on his head. There was darknesss . . .

He must have been unconscious for a full minute, perhaps more. When he sat up and ruefully rubbed his skull, it seemed that it was spring. Birds were singing, and a gentle fountain somewhere gently played. Then he knew it was the rain, a roaring cloudburst. And over it there was a great, expanding sigh of ecstasy that shook the house.

Etienne remembered then, and clawed his way along the corridor, weakly beat upon the door, and sobbed, “Mercedes!” And she answered him.

“Etienne!” she cried, and her sweet, tinkling voice was strained and harsh, like coarse silk tearing. “Etienne—I lied! I—”

And then her words were drowned in such a cataclysmic rhapsody of rapturous squeals and groans and slobbering slur-r-ups of delight as to stun the ear and stop the heart. "Vincent!" she screamed at last, above the storm of gustatory joy, "Vincent, my love!"

And then her voice was stilled.

Bubu stood, his arms full of dusty bottles, staring down at his master in ajar-jawed astonishment. The rain had slacked, and in the garden Gertrude aped a nightingale, split the satin of her throat with melancholy song. And now the sounds beyond the door subsided slowly to a kind of satiated coda, a roundelay of little grunts and chucklings.

Etienne stumbled to his feet and stared unseeingly at Bubu. Then a little, very little life illumined his eyes.

“Fetch me the ax,” he said.

#

Mercedes’ robe was neatly folded on a chair, her spun-glass slippers glittered together on the floor. The Tasting Machine was silent, somnolent, its filament glowing with a blinding white-hot fever. Etienne took it gently into his arms and carried it to the cellar, poised for a moment above an open hundred-gallon cask of Thracian whine, then let it go. it gurgled thirstily, sinking, disappeared. It came up thrice, and at the last time Etienne fancied—was it his overwrought imagination?—that it called out wispily for help, then choked and strangled, sank, and was entirely gone.

Back in the kitchen he opened an ironwood cabinet and removed a case of thin, brilliantly glistening knives, fell to sharpening them. Bubu was polishing glasses; Gertrude flew in through the open window, perched above the range, and preened her wet, bedraggled feathers.

“Pieces of eight,” she squawked. “Pieces of eight!”

The cuckoo clock on the floor above distantly caroled. Etienne wondered, was it eight or nine? Or did it matter? He went to the slate, gazed at it reflectively for a little time, then slowly erased Hamburger 61st Street and scrawled in its place: Brochettes de Foie Vincent.

The front doorbell chimed.

“Please answer it,” he said to Bubu. “Sir Osbert Fawning and the Dowager Lady Swathe are often early.”

###

Me again: If you'd like scans of the unreprinted Paul Cain stories "Dutch Treat," "Chinaman's Chance" and "555," email me here: delewis1@hotmail.com. And for REALLY BIG NEWS regarding two more such stories, tune in next week. Watch for it!

Friday's Forgotten Books is a weekly presentation of pattinase.

10 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Thanks for putting this together this way...I have informed a few lists about it, and look forward to reading it myself...

George said...

Many thanks for this wonderful story!
Keep'em coming!

Charles Gramlich said...

I'll book mark this one for later so I can take my time reading it.

David Cranmer said...

I'm looking forward to reading this, Evan. Big thanks for taking the time to post.

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