Summer is for steamy romance. Our new series of classic fiction from the 1940s and ’50s features sexy intrigue from the archives for all of your beach reading needs. Read “Gigolo,” from 1958, in which Hank, a young girl from Texas, is visiting France with her parents when she meets Charlie, a generous local who might not be telling the whole truth.
So narrow was the ancient street on the Left Bank, so tinctured with shadow were its tilted buildings even at midday, that Hank slipped her thousand-dollar camera back into its alligator case. Five feet seven and a half inches of blond, gorgeous, appallingly healthy ranch girl, she glowed in the shadow like one of the roses her fellow Texans hymned. She turned to her plump, short mother, who wore a white ostrich hat.
“See something, doll?” she asked.
To their left was a butcher shop which, to judge from the gilded horse’s head over its door, did not sell beef. Mrs. Nesbitt, however, was not studying horse chops. She was gazing into a cobwebbed window that bore no inscription, no name at all.
“Hank,” she murmured weakly, “French Provincial. Tons of it. Simply tons!”
“Mother, that’s impossible,” said Hank.
“I tell you it is. Wait here, dear.”
A woman in a dream, floating, Mrs. Nesbitt entered the shop, or warehouse, or whatever it was. Careless of her embroidered glove, she dragged a thumb across the dusty top of a carved chest. Rosewood gleamed at her like amber with the sun shining through it.
“Is this furniture for sale?” she inquired.
“Oui,” replied a great-grandfather in a denim apron and felt slippers. “But it is for country inns and cafés, madame.”
Mrs. Nesbitt, veteran auction goer, fought down her impulse to snatch out her letter of credit and her traveler’s checks. There were mirrors in ropetwist frames, inlaid writing desks, walnut bedsteads with pineapple finíais. Against a whitewashed wall stood a refectory table that virtually yelled the headlines from the sixteenth century.
“You see,” said Mrs. Nesbitt craftily, “my house in America is a big old farmhouse. I can always use a few extra pieces. They don’t have to be new.”
While the bargaining went on inside, Hank watched a tall, thin young man in paint-spattered jeans, wearing a trim beard and a beret, mount a white motor scooter. The young Frenchman observed her observing him.
“What a magnificent body you have,” he addressed her in perfect English. “Will you pose for me without your clothes?”
“You go jump in a fountain,” replied Hank tersely.
Her admirer snapped his fingers. “I beg your pardon. I neglected to explain that I’m a painter.”
“I was right sure you weren’t a diplomat,” said Hank caustically.
Nonetheless they fell into a somewhat uneasy conversation, warm on one side and cool on the other, like a waffle in a large family. It was still going on when Mrs. Nesbitt, reeling in triumph, joined them on the narrow sidewalk.
“Henrietta,” she murmured, “I have just bought thirty or forty thousand dollars’ worth of French Provincial for six thousand dollars. I’m a little faint. I think I’ll go back to the hotel and lie down. . . . Who is this devastatingly handsome young man?”
“Charles George Surmont,” the young man introduced himself with alacrity, “Charlie to my friends. I’m fairly well known as a painter. At least I thought I was. But your daughter not only has not heard of me, she doesn’t believe a word I say, so I have invited her to come with me to Dueppel’s, the gallery that handles my work.”
“And so tall too,” mused Mrs. Nesbitt. . . .
“Taller than you are, Hank. Isn’t that lovely? . . . Good-by, children. Have a good time.”
“Mother, have you gone mad?” demanded Hank, scandalized.
“If I’d been lucky enough to get to Paris at your age,” said Mrs. Nesbitt, “I would have got onto a scooter and gone to Dueppel’s. I can tell you that!” She waved her furled plaid umbrella. “Taxi, taxi!”
Charlie took Hank to his dealer’s, where, to her astonishment, he was treated not only with affection but with the deepest respect.
“I’m afraid you’ll laugh at these,” he said, setting up canvases for her. “You see, we younger painters don’t try for realism. What we try to do is capture feelings, impressions. We use design and color to —-“
“We have colleges in Texas, believe it or not,” replied Hank. “I had two years of art appreciation.”
“Then you like these?”
“I won’t go that far,” said Hank, “but I know enough to know they’re good.”
Charlie regarded her with intense admiration. “Tell me,” he asked, “do you also appreciate food, you wonderful, beautiful thing?”
Nothing catastrophic could happen to her in a restaurant, decided Hank. They went for lunch to a place on the little island in the Seine that is Paris’s very heart, where the tablecloths were sheets of wrapping paper and everybody kept his napkin — for somewhat too long a time, perhaps — in a numbered wooden ring.
“Taxi chauffeurs eat here,” said Charlie, busy shaking hands with taxi chauffeurs. “That’s always a sign of good food.”
“At home we say it’s truck drivers,” said Hank.
After lunch, astride the scooter, they went sight-seeing. They viewed the Grands Boulevards, the Champs tlysees under chestnut parasols, the Bois with lovers sprawled on the grass. Hank’s legs were well received. It seemed only mannerly for her to ask Charlie, little as she trusted him, to dine with her parents.
He arrived at the Ritz in a dinner jacket — no doubt a rented one. Hank said to herself, though his bamboo-thin figure gave it a certain splendor. In the lapel was a small, puckered green ribbon.
“What the dickens is that?” boomed Hank’s gigantic, hearty father, spying the decoration. “You’re too young to have been in the war, boy.”
“It’s an agricultural prize for raising cabbages without damage from the harlequin bug,” answered Charlie. “My family have a little farm in the Midi. In France we take agriculture very seriously.”
“We take it seriously in Texas.-‘ said Mr. Nesbitt. “I’m a grapefruit farmer, myself. Our pest is the Mexican fruit fly.”
It was clear that Charlie and Mr. Nesbitt were going to get along like lodge brothers. Hank was not sure that she approved of it.
In a fifteenth-century hot a mile up the Seine they ate an excellent dinner. Charlie then pointed out that Paris contained, along with its own private river and forest, its own private mountain, Montmartre. He conducted them on a tour of it. from simple taverns in which they sat on trestle benches and sang old songs to garish smoky clubs, all spotlights and rhinestones, in which the chorus girls followed the fashions not of Paris but of Bali. No matter how varied the night spots were, however, all of them had one thing in common. All of them knew Charlie. Headwaiters embraced him. Orchestras played tangos for him while he instructed Mrs. Nesbitt and her daughter in the most elegant of dances.
“Charlie, my boy,” boomed Mr. Nesbitt at three a.m., “I just latched onto an idea. The girls and I are going to hire a car and tour France, but we need somebody to show us the sights. Come on along, why don’t you?”
“I’d like nothing better,” said Charlie, gazing at Hank in a way that made her question the wisdom of the necklines on French evening dresses. “Nothing!”
“Now,” continued Hank’s father, “I’m a businessman and I believe in plain speaking. Your inflation is worse than ours, prices are high, and you’re a young fellow just starting out. I want to pay you a salary. How about a hundred bucks a week?”
“You call it plain speaking, do you?” asked Charlie. “I call it kindheartedness and tact. Certainement. I can use the money: I accept with pleasure.”
At the Ritz, late though it was. Hank gave an imitation of a tornado.
“Can’t you see he’s spotted us for some tourists he can take?” she stormed. “He’s playing us for suckers! Why, it’s as plain as the nose on your face!”
“Pooh,” scoffed Mr. Nesbitt, removing his dress tie. “He isn’t the type, Hank.”
“Why, he’s a darling!” exclaimed Mrs. Nesbitt. “He’s absolutely charming!”
“There are men who make a profession of it,” Said Hank, “in case you haven’t heard.”
“Matter of fact,” said her father, “he’s the one who’s doing us a favor. Now we’ve got an English-speaking guide to show us around for not much more than I’d pay a driver. Relax.”
“And there’s something else you haven’t thought of, Henrietta,” said Mrs. Nesbitt. “Travel with a twenty-one-year old girl can be a bit difficult. Now you have a regular date. Can that boy mambo!”
“I’ll choose my own dates!” Hank’s voice approached full volume. “What if he drives us off on a side road somewhere and holds us up? What if he sneaks into my room at night in some lonely country hotel and — and assaults me?”
“When he assaults you,” suggested Mr. Nesbitt, “scream good and loud, like you’re doing now. . . . Good night, chicks. Wake me at noon.”
In Hank’s room at the other end of the suite she discovered a package, delivered apparently by a bellboy. Across it was written: “For Hank, because she knows enough to know it’s good.” Inside was one of the paintings Charlie had shown her at his dealer’s — product of weeks, possibly months of work. Bah, said Hank to herself, sniffing, he probably dashes them off in five minutes and gives them to every girl he picks up. He’s not fooling me for an instant.
Their route south would have driven a map maker in an automobile club to a psychoanalyst’s couch. Charlie, who believed with all Latins that eighty was a safe and comfortable speed, drove not from town to town but from cheese to cheese, from local wine to local wine, from truite farcie au porto to volaille de Bresse a la creme. The hours they gained on the highway they spent — for “wasted” was not the word — at table. Luncheons, in the remote but triple-starred restaurants to which Charlie piloted them, began at noon and concluded at three. Dinners began at eight and ended at eleven later, if the brandy was exceptional, and the brandy was always exceptional.
“At this rate,” said Hank, following a considered policy of refrigeration, “I estimate we’ll take twenty years to get to the Riviera. We may all die along the road somewhere and nobody will find us.”
“Anyhow, we sure won’t die of starvation,” remarked her father with something between a rumble and a sigh. . . . “Mother, did you get the recipe for that duck with truffles?”
In the Midi, the central plain of France, the wheatfields flared just as Van Gogh had painted them — as if the planet were still a molten ball; in every incandescent field carmine poppies. The Nesbitts and their knowledgeable, personable tour leader slept under canopies of wisteria in tumbledown inns without baths. They slept in turreted châteaux with baths of green marble that had black onyx tubs with gold angels for faucets. But in inns and castles alike toothless old kitchenmaids and pouch-eyed proprietors in white aprons came running out to the rented Daimler with cries of “Ah, Charlie! Charlie, my dear!”
They explored a vineyard where the men and women working in the tender green vines removed their broad straw hats as Charlie greeted them by name. And at the end of the week, when Hank and Mrs. Nesbitt were having trouble getting their dresses over their hips, they visited an orphan asylum. The orphans, in worn blue smocks, sang Frère Jacques for them. Afterward, carrying small wooden bowls, they marched in their wooden shoes into a tiled cloister for their big meal of the day — cabbage soup, served them by nuns whose caps were white swans against the blue sky.
That evening in Nîmes, when Charlie changed out of his rope-soled sandals and the blue-and-white-striped sailor’s undergarment he wore as a T shirt, Hank did not plead fatigue when he asked her if she would care to take a stroll. She was up to her ears in eulogies of Charlie’s exquisite courtesy, Charlie’s astonishing education, Charlie’s gay spontaneity, Charlie’s wholesome modesty, Charlie’s lovely disposition. If she could not make her position clear to her lovesick parents, she was determined to make it clear once and for all to the fair-haired boy himself. . . . The two of them walked at random in the dusk, past old men bowling on vacant lots, past families chattering on café terraces, past shops with necklaces of tinware and sponges hanging outside the door, until an iron fence brought them up short. Beyond the fence lay a small, columned, perfectly preserved Roman temple.
“This was Diana’s,” said Charlie, “goddess of the moon, virgins and hunting. A curious mixture, don’t you think?”
“Very,” replied Hank. “Ominous, in fact.”
“You don’t like me at all, not even the least little bit, do you?” asked Charlie.
“Everybody else does. Everybody in France, as far as I can make out,” replied Hank. “You don’t need me in the bundle. I’m just a lone dissenter from the Lone Star State.”
“But what if I do need you?” asked Charlie. “Suppose — just suppose, Hank — I’m honest when I say that.” He pronounced her nickname as “Honk.” “Don’t you think you owe it to me to tell me why I’m — how do you say? — poison to you?”
It was the opportunity Hank wanted. “All right, I’ll tell you,” she said, with spirit. “I like my mysteries in paperbacks, Charlie, or in the movies. Explain a few things. Why were you so well known wherever we went in Paris?”
“Because, even in a city as large as Paris, people with the same interests, or maybe I should say the same view of life, come to know each other.”
“Interests, for example,” said Hank, “like steering tourists to night spots and collecting a percentage of the check. This is rude of me, I know, but you asked for it. How about these places we’ve stopped at along the road? They all know you too. More commissions?”
“France is a small country,” said Charlie. “It’s possible to have friends all over it, especially when you’ve been a traveling salesman as I have. Next question. …”
“Why did those peasants at the vineyard snatch off their hats? Are you a duke or something? Are you just having fun with a laughable little group of three American barbarians?”
“A graduate of a great Texas university ought to know there aren’t any titles in France — not valid ones, anyhow,” said Charlie. “But, yes, my grandfather did have one he used sometimes with snobs he disliked, and since we come from the Midi, these people know us. What do you want me to do — hurt their feelings by telling them to put their silly hats back on their heads?”
The new moon was a drawn bow of silver. It waited in the darkening sky as if it were reluctant to leave Diana’s chaste little temple.
“Permit me,” said Charlie. “I shall be as blunt now as you have been. Either you are younger than any European girl of your age would be or you have not inherited your parents’ wisdom about people. Your father knows there are two kinds of people, the hunters” — he gestured toward the temple — “and those who give what they can, whether it’s paintings or friendliness or a beautiful voice or grapefruit. Do you know your papa wrote a check that will keep that orphanage going for a year?”
“I have a pretty good idea you took us there so he would.”
“I did,” said Charlie. “And he knows it, and he’s grateful to me. That’s what you don’t understand. Alors, I dislike you every bit as much as you dislike me, Hank, and it disturbs me deeply, because I have had the bad luck to fall in love with you. I do not, you see, wish a wife so filled with suspicion that she cannot believe in the existence of good deeds.”
“Really!” said Hank. “There’s not the least danger I’ll ever lie your wife, believe me.”
“I wish I could,” said Charlie, “but you’re in love with me too. A virgin does not always know.” He bowed toward the temple. “Guide her, Diana. She is one of yours.”
The Riviera, the Coast of Azure, was much as Hank had imagined it would be. A boulevard festive with palms and pennants curved alongside a radiant Mediterranean, with huge hotels built wall to wall — hundreds of them, a solid white palisade against the cactus-spiked slopes of the southern Alps.
“How depressing,” said Mrs. Nesbitt. “Luxury hotels are the same from Acapulco to Miami Beach. I hate to end up in one of these when we’ve been having so much fun.”
“Me too. Best time I’ve had since I was a kid tramping the fruit,” agreed Mr. Nesbitt. “Charlie, don’t you know some place that isn’t so fancypants?”
“Sure,” replied Charlie, waving at a traffic cop in a cape, who waved his white baton in return, “but the food is ordinary, the rooms are hot and the servants are fresh — they’re young artists earning their summer vacations. It costs fifty dollars a day apiece too. Not for me, because I stay there free, but that’s what it’ll cost you.”
“What’s good about it?” asked Hank. “If anything.”
“Only the people. The same guests come year after year because they like each other so much.”
“I’ve got to lose five pounds,” said Mrs. Nesbitt. “Let’s try it.”
The Auberge Matelot, its shingle walls faded by salt air, looked like a run-down boardinghouse on Cape Cod. In the lounge the chintz covers on the wicker furniture dated from 1930. Every inch of the walls inside was covered by new, unframed paintings, evidently put up for sale by the talented help. The proprietor greeted them in a frock coat worn over bathing trunks.
“I’m afraid you’ve been misdirected,” he said courteously to Mr. Nesbitt. “This is a private club, and our rooms are booked through 1960. I am so sorry——”
At this point Charlie, helping two bearded boys in white sailor suits with the luggage, came in from the car.
“Charlie!” cried the proprietor, grasping him by the ears and kissing him soundly on both cheeks. “The Princess was saying just yesterday she wished you were here. She wanted you to rub away one of her headaches.__ Let’s see, what do I have for your friends? How about two rooms with a sitting room?”
The gardens of the Auberge Matelot were a tangle of mimosa, bougainvillaea, roses and neglected lemon and orange trees that made Mr. Nesbitt groan. Tables were hidden away in the bushes like birds’ nests. Each table had its lateluncheon or early-cocktail party — it was hard to say which — with women in simple little three-hundred-dollar cottons pouring for other women in shabby beach robes and towel turbans, for men in ragged tennis shoes. Up a path, pursued by a nursemaid, sped a sun-tanned little Spanish girl of five or six, naked except for a diamond necklace.
“Hoo-hoo!” somebody called.
“Isn’t that Elsa Maxwell?” asked Mrs. Nesbitt.
“Where?” inquired Charlie, looking in the other direction.
“It is, and she’s calling you.”
“Hank doesn’t like me to know so many people. Now here,” said Charlie as they reached the bottom of the garden, “is what I want to show you.” The shrubbery came to an end on an outcrop of pale gray granite. Steps, each of them a hundred feet long, were cut into the stone. They led straight down into the waveless sea. “No one knows who made these,” continued Charlie. “Perhaps the Romans, for a landing place for their royal galleys. But look, you can walk down into blue water fifty feet deep. I’ve seen pictures of the California beaches and the Greek islands, but this must be the most beautiful place to swim in all the world.”
Down the coast, possibly a quarter of a mile away, they could see a small fishing village, with brown nets drying in the sun and boats moored at a stone quay.
A tall, thin man — tall and thin as Charlie himself — came up out of the water. He wore faded red trunks with mothholes.
“Ca va ?” he asked.
“Hello, Arch,” replied Charlie. “Have you got a dinner jacket I can wear?”
“Who’d you give yours to?”
“A barber in Avignon. He needs it to get married in.”
“Sure. I’ll be in my room, the broom closet over the kitchen,” said the lean man in the red trunks, and trotted up the path.
“Come on, Charlie,” said Mr. Nesbitt, chuckling over the plight of his women, who appeared to have been stricken with palsy. “Even I can recognize that one. That was Cary Grant.”
“I guess so,” admitted Charlie in a reluctant murmur.
Mrs. Nesbitt recovered her voice. “What is this place?” she demanded.
“I told you,” said Charlie. “They’re very friendly people.”
Charlie was to eat his dinner that evening with the proprietor and his wife, M. and Mme. Auby. He urged the Nesbitts to drive into Nice if they wanted a respectable meal, but even Hank was tired after the two-day drive that had taken two weeks. Her mother and father went early to their shaky old brass beds. Thus at ten o’clock Hank found herself alone in the deserted lounge. Everybody, she told herself, was out having a gay time; everybody but Henrietta Nesbitt.
Down the staircase came an elderly gentleman whose eyebrows were as black as his silk suit — black, bushy and turned up at the ends, like Satan’s. Spying Hank, he addressed her in weird English, tacking a breathy whistle onto his words so that it sounded as if he were accompanying himself on a flute. “But, my-ee dear,” he exclaimed, “youth-ee is not-ee to be wasted like this-ee ! Come, we will make-ee a party, you-ee and I-ee!”
“Oh, no, thank you,” answered Hank, shrinking on her chair.
“Ecco ! I-ee will call-ee a cab. We will go-ee to Monte Carlo! We will drink wine-ee, we will dance-ee——”
Hands outstretched, eyes glittering, he advanced upon her. With a small scream, Hank leaped from her chair, a white satin rocket. The nearest door let her into the cobbled lane to the fishing village. She ran as fast as her plastic slippers with their slim aluminum heels permitted, until she was in the public square with its plane trees and benches. The square was empty and dark. There was only one spot of light, where a workman on a stepladder was painting a sign for a restaurant under a bare electric bulb hanging from a wire.
Each of them asked the same question: “What are you doing here?”
“I,” said Charlie from the stepladder, “am creating a masterpiece. Voilà!” He gestured. Over the doorway of the restaurant, a scroll read C hez Je a n. A panel to the left of the door displayed a basket containing a bouquet of fish. A second panel, on the right side, bore a half-finished crawfish in bright scarlet. “Jean cannot afford a professional sign painter.” “Oh, you’ve shaved off your beard!”
“The climate. You,” said Charlie, “have been running.”
“A nasty old man at the hotel tried to make me go out with him. He had eyebrows like the Devil.”
“That’s Orsini from Rome, the authority on early Christian plain song. He’s the gentlest and kindest of men. Also he’s seventy-five.” Thoughtful, Charlie capped his tube of scarlet and descended a few steps on the ladder. “I begin to understand,” he said. “An extremely feminine girl, probably afraid of mice and lightning, in a foreign country for the first time. How could I have been so unperceptive, so stupid? Naturally you suspect me, suspect Orsini, suspect everything. You’re scared. I have misjudged you seriously. Hank, I’m sorry.”
Hank looked at the crawfish, painted with artists’ colors that cost more than a sign painter earned in a week. She remembered the dinner jacket given to a barber. She remembered the orphans. She remembered the dozens upon dozens of people who loved Charlie because he was Charlie.
“I wish you’d slapped me when I said those horrible things to you,” she said sincerely. “Slap me now. Good and hard.”
Charlie climbed down, cleansed his hands of scarlet, and deposited his box of colors and brushes in the restaurant. Side by side, through soft night perfumed with mimosa and turpentine, they walked back to the hotel and down the gravel path to the great stone steps. The horizon was a backdrop of stars — some of which, redder than the rest, rocked slowly back and forth: lanterns in the boats of the fishermen.
“I assume,” said Charlie, “you have been kissed.”
“Not too often,” replied Hank.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s all right. Friendly, as you say.”
“There are friendly kisses that have something more than friendliness,” said Charlie. “Nobody knows exactly what the something is, but when it’s there it’s pretty good proof that two people love each other.”
Hank felt his mouth on hers. For a moment that was all she felt. Not that it was not enough. But then a number of curious things happened. A procession of little men twirling Fourth-of-July sparklers marched along her upper lip. Other little men, inhabiting her lower lip, built bright bonfires and leaped over them. Someone marched along with a bass drum, coming closer and closer. Yet the to-do, strangely enough, was relaxing. Hank’s eyelids fell. Her teeth parted. She reclined on velvet cushions in a gondola on a canal in Venice. Now five hundred Roman candles blasted off, followed by a salvo of skyrockets, and suddenly the Venetian canal became a Northwest Passage walled with ice, and she shivered from head to toe.
Afterward, neither of them spoke. Charlie left her at the foot of the staircase in the empty lounge, laying a forefinger for a moment against her hot cheek, and Hank stumbled upstairs to her room.
Charlie rapped on the door of the suite at ten in the morning as the Nesbitts, after a breakfast of crescent rolls, fresh farm butter, honey that tasted of grapes, and bowls of café au laii, were getting into swimsuits for a morning in the sun. Charlie wore M. Auby’s frock coat with a carnation in the lapel, striped gray trousers and an Ascot tie. He carried gloves. Clearly, his was a formal call. Either that or he was on his way to a funeral.
“Sir,” he said to Mr. Nesbitt, who jumped, “I don’t know the Texan customs, so you must forgive me if I blunder. I request your permission to ask your daughter, Miss Henrietta, to be my wife.” Mr. Nesbitt, in trunks, looked not unlike a hippopotamus photographed in jolly mood at a picnic. “Sure,” he replied. “Want some coffee?”
“For goodness’ sake, sit down,” added Mrs. Nesbitt.
“This is too solemn an occasion for sitting,” Charlie gently rebuked her. Turning, he bowed to Hank. “Henrietta, it is clear to both of us, I hope, that we cannot live happily without each other,” he said. “Will you do me the honor of becoming Mrs. Charles George Surmont?”
Hank, surprising herself, burst into tears suddenly and violently, as if somebody had stepped on her big toe. It was all she could do to answer yes.
“How perfectly sweet,” said Mrs. Nesbitt. “Now you will have some coffee, won’t you, Charlie dear? I’m sure you didn’t eat a bite of breakfast.”
Charlie seated himself at random. “I am somewhat dazed,” he remarked to the room at large.
“Son,” said Mr. Nesbitt, “I don’t know when I’ve met a young fellow I like as much as I do you. Mother feels the same way: if you don’t come home with us I’m afraid mother won’t come either. But I’m a businessman and I believe in plain speaking. There’s one thing we’d better clear up, I guess.”
Charlie turned pale. “Your pal Mongsoor Auby likes to show off his English,” continued Hank’s father, “so he and I had a nice long gabfest. He says you give away five paintings for every one you sell. He says that ribbon you wear isn’t for raising cabbages, it’s awarded to French citizens called Benefactors of the Republic. At that orphanage, while I was writing a check, the Mother Superior had a hundred-buck bill in her hand. I figured it had to come from you; it was your first week’s salary I’d just given you. But Mongsoor Auby says you have another orphanage on your string. He says you raise dough for a home for old actors too. Charlie, I’m all for it. I try to do what I can, myself. But I’m a millionaire, and you aren’t. Maybe you’re a nut. If I take you home to manage Cielo Verde, the ranch I deeded to Hank on her twenty-first birthday, are you going to give the darned place away tree by tree?”
“But it should be obvious to you,” said Charlie, “that I can’t support orphanages on what I earn painting. I, too, have a business.”
“Well, that’s more like it,” said Mr. Nesbitt.
“But I don’t want to tell you about it,” said Charlie sadly. “Because, you see, I am what Hank thought I was. I am a swindler.”
“I don’t believe it,” cried Hank.
From the striped trousers, which were much too short for him, Charlie drew his wallet, and from the wallet an envelope. He handed the envelope to Mrs. Nesbitt. “Open it, please,” he requested her, “and read the letter.”
Mrs. Nesbitt obeyed. “Why, it’s about the antiques I bought in Paris,” she said, perplexed. “The shop has returned my check!”
“I told them to,” said Charlie. “The pieces are forgeries.”
“Charlie, I know antiques,” protested Mrs. Nesbitt. “The wood was old; I tested it with my thumbnail. There were wormholes. The broken leg on the refectory table was mended with a handwrought iron nail.”
“The wood is aged in pits and hardened with carbamide,” said Charlie. “The nail was genuine, but the leg was broken on purpose so it could be mended with the nail. I am sure of my facts, you see, because I own the factory. All of the authentic Provincial furniture in France, like our period furniture, was bought long ago by collectors. So today when somebody opens a country inn or a restaurant he must buy copies from me — good copies, made by hand, giving employment to old craftsmen who badly need the work, but copies just the same.”
“That doesn’t make you a swindler,” interposed Hank loyally.
“My dearest Hank, you are wrong,” said Charlie, “because now and then a tourist stumbles on our warehouse, like your mamma. ‘Are these antiques?’ she asks. ‘No,’ says old Papa Pierre, my caretaker. But the lady never believes him. She thinks he is an ignorant dodderer. She buys. She insists on buying.”
Mr. Nesbitt laughed until he coughed through his cigar and blew sparks. “You mean the tourists try to take advantage of you.”
“It is morally reprehensible on both sides.”
“Some of them are just plain trying to gyp you. They get what they deserve, and you get money for your orphans and your old actors and cabinetmakers,” said Mr. Nesbitt. Still chuckling, he took up the telephone. Several seconds passed before anybody answered it, since all of the servants were out in the garden painting. “Service de rooms?” said Mr. Nesbitt into the phone. “Say, we’re having a little celebration up here. Send up a bottle o f—-“He paused, frowned in consternation and turned to Charlie. “Son,” he asked, “how the heck do you say champagne in French?”