It was Bobinet’s idea to come, provoked by a fit of social zeal, or at least by the promise of coffee and pastries. Thus far Gardefeu had found the pastries stale, the coffee abominable, and the company dull. After the fourth or fifth introduction, he had begun introducing himself with wilder and wilder occupations as a form of amusement. The portly gentleman seated next to him was under the impression that he owned an ostrich farm in South Africa.
As yet, there was no hint of what, precisely, this society wished to abolish. “Perhaps taxes,” Bobinet had said, “or those particularly ugly hats that all of Métella’s friends have taken up recently!” Alas, there were a great many ugly hats in the room, adorning women quite a bit more staid than Gardefeu’s usual associates—although sometimes the staid ones could be fun, after they warmed up a little.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a middle-aged lady at the front of the room who put Gardefeu unpleasantly in mind of Bobinet’s aunt, “please, if we may have some silence for Monsieur Balesta.”
Only half-listening, Gardefeu took another bit of his stale pain au chocolat and grimaced. Really, if they wanted people to return to their meetings, they ought to serve better pastries. He passed it to Bobinet, who ate it with vague indifference.
“Little by little, under the intoxicating liqueur, he feels an unknown fire lighting his veins,” Monsieur Balesta droned, “reaching his brain. His tongue, formerly thick with embarrassment, loosens with the warmth of the fire; he is almost witty; his heart overflows with affection.”
“Sounds like capital stuff,” he murmured sotto voce to Bobinet, “I’ll take a bottle.”
“…absinthe makes you crazy and criminal,” Balesta continued, his voice rising. “It provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people!”
Gardefeu was beginning to have the terrible feeling that there had been some fine print on the placard, which Bobinet in his tippled state had failed to read. Bobinet at present was vibrating as he absorbed this singular speech, and Gardefeu grabbed his arm, hoping to forestall an outburst once it had fully percolated. “Pardon me,” he whispered to his neighbor, as the room burst into polite applause, “but does your society seek to abolish alcohol?”
The gentleman stared at him for a moment, then laughed. “Of course not! What a ridiculous idea. Why, I myself own a vineyard in the south.”
“A relief,” Gardefeu began. “I was beginning to think—”
“No, no, it’s only absinthe that ought to be illegal,” the gentleman continued. “A terrible drink. For the sake of the future of France, we must do something about it before it’s too late.”
There was a clatter of chairs and a heavy thud as Bobinet, struck with horror, fainted with all the grace of a giraffe attempting a waltz.
“…I had to carry him out.” Gardefeu affected a piteous look. “I think I strained my shoulder. There’s a devilish lot of him.”
“You poor darlings.” Métella handed Bobinet, who was draped morosely over Métella’s antique méridienne, a cool cloth for his bruised forehead. “To be so cruelly misled.”
The clock chimed five, and Gardefeu sat up a little straighter, regarding Métella with a hopeful eye. She was wearing green striped silk that day, a color which made her fair curls seem to shine even more golden. “Métella, my darling,” he said, “most lovely of fairies, it is five o’clock.”
Métella gave him a secretive little smile. “Indeed it is.”
“And it has been a terrible day,” he continued. “Why, poor Bobinet’s faith in humanity has been utterly shaken.”
“Poor lamb,” said Métella.
“I am sure he would feel much better for a little refreshment.”
“As would you?” She smiled again. “Very well; wait here a few moments.”
Gardefeu amused himself while she was gone by anticipation: he could imagine her so easily, his—well, their—little green fairy, an ethereal vision as she laid out silver spoon and glass, a little saucer of sugar cubes. The fragrance of anise would rise up to perfume the air as she poured the water with neat grace, mixing the contents of the glass to a milky louche.
He opened his eyes to the soft clink of a tray being set on the table. A tray which contained, Gardefeu saw with a sinking heart, a steaming pot of tea, three bone china cups and saucers, a bowl of sugar, a pitcher of milk, and a plate of madeleines.
“My auntie, God rest her soul, always said tea would cure whatever ailed you,” Métella said placidly. Only the faint twitch at the corner of her mouth betrayed her. “Although I am not sure it enhances the reading of placards.”
Under his cool cloth, Bobinet began to cackle. “Well done, Métella!” he gasped between peals of laughter. “I concede!”
Gardefeu threw a small pillow at him, which if anything increased the volume of the cackling. “Are you a man or a hyena?” he inquired, prodding Bobinet with his foot. To Métella: “Two lumps of sugar, no milk, please.” He forced an unconcerned smile, as if he had wanted tea all along. “And a madeleine.”
She’d won this hand; he could be gentlemanly in defeat. At least, Gardefeu consoled himself as he stirred the sugar into his tea, Métella would never serve stale madeleines.