The Cheater's Being Cheated
“Monsieur Abélard is bringing a friend over for tea, Vivienne! Get the china out, quick!”
Mme. Oriabel sure goes nutty when the thought of guests enters her mind. I had heard of the rumor when I was still down in the village, but I didn’t believe it, of course. Who would think it was true? Prestigious Madam Oriable Natividad, wife of the great Abélard Natividad, nutty? Ha! The mere thought of it made me want to laugh at the time, but now, I felt differently. I got off my bed like spring upon hearing this news.
“Coming, Madam!” I cried as I tore off my servant’s attire, the bland rag-like thing I wear around the house when no one’s around to see me. The first thing Madame Oriabel told me on day one of my stay as a maid here was: Never let a guest see you in your kirtle. She insisted upon this law, and every time someone was to come and have tea in the Natividad household, I was to wear this lovely red servant’s gown. That’s what I did now.
In only my white chemise, I ran to the tiny brown closet in the corner of the room. I opened it. It wasn’t hard to find my red overdress, for it was submerged in the plain yellow stuff that I wear usually. It was like finding a red rose among a sea of yellow daffodils. I was glad I got to wear something else other than my kirtles, my so-called daffodils, one-piece, sleeveless dresses with a pale yellow overdresses, which have yellow bodices attached to a even more yellowish skirts. Is it hardly right to admonish me for wishing for another color in my boring life?
I laid out the scarlet overdress on my cot-like dull bed and then tightened the grey-pink corset around me. Having done it so often, my hands worked expertly behind my back, knotting the strings properly. I slipped into the red dress immediately and then skipped to the door. I would have washed my face and my hands, if I had the chance – for that was law two according to Madam Oriabel: Never miss a chance to wash a grubby face – but the lady of the Natividad household was screeching for me again, and it was never good to upset the mistress you work for.
“Yes, Madam?” I said breathlessly, having breezed into the kitchen at top speed. Mme.
Oriabel was placing something into the oven – a cake, perhaps? – and she stood up straight upon my arrival.
“What do you mean, ‘yes, Madam’? Set the table, girl!” she frowned at me.
Even while frowning, she looked devastatingly pretty. A handsome woman, all the gentlemen around town would say. She had those large brown eyes and the fair skin that any self-respecting lady would die for. The cute button nose and the arched brows were the talk of all the single men in town, and the smooth creamy neck around which beautiful white pearls ringed made many ladies cringe in envy. Her chemise, quite unlike mine having been made of very fine linen and having been beautifully worked with embroidery was showing slightly above her bodice, below her pale neck. The round cherubic face was also an added bonus.
I take nothing to heart though, the things I hear, when I go shopping for vegetables in the market. See, I’ve heard the ladies in town gossiping about Madam Natividad, saying that ‘round’ wasn’t a very pretty shape for a face. I’ve concluded that those so-called backbiting ladies (the very same ones who come around once a week for tea here! Shameful, I tell you!) are jealous. Madame Oriable Natividad is an outstandingly fine woman, and that’s that. Those ladies will just have to face the truth.
Unfortunately, the mistress of Natividad was not smiling her usual cheery smile now, and I skipped quickly to the large cabinet wherein all the silver and all china were placed. I remembered noticing that the cabinet was even bigger than my closet. How unfair. I carefully balanced two china plates in my left hand and another in my right. They were made of the finest bone china, looking so delicate, it appeared as if a shrill scream could cause them to shatter. Madam Natividad’s favorite belongings.
“Careful, now, child!” she said anxiously, watching on, as I wobbled through the door and into the living room.
The dining hall was just opposite but Madam Oriabel never used the dining hall to make small conversations with new acquaintances, and so, I knew the living room had to be the place. The large, craftily carved, circular teak table was in the center of the huge room with the tapestries and the lovely aquamarine curtains hanging over the windows at the four corners of the room. I slid the plates across gently, and then went back into the kitchen for more supplies. Hurrying back, I set the crystalline pure cups, matching pink cloth napkins and other such prestige utensils on the round table. I made the table look its prettiest.
Meanwhile Madam Natividad was in the kitchen, waiting for her fruit cake to bake in the oven, and busy cutting up tomatoes. I joined her, pulled out the second knife and started chopping up cucumbers. Madam Oriabel loved to serve tomato-cum-cucumber sandwiches to her guests. It was a specialty in the Natividad household.
As soon as the cucumber leaves pile reached my wrist – DONG! DONG! The doorbell rang. They were here!
Madam Natividad turned pale and ashen, as though nothing had been readied. “Get the door, Vivienne”, she ordered as her hands began moving about herself, adjusting her clothes.
The chemise was made hidden. I trotted my way through the highly furnished living room and right before the caller on the other side rang the bell again, I pulled open the wooden, heavily patterned door. From my first look at Monsieur Abélard Natividad’s friend, I could tell he was rich. But the adjective ‘rich’ meant he was probably stingy with his money, too, like all rich people are. The funny thing was his features showed no sign of that. The instant one looks at Monsieur Abélard Natividad, the word ‘stingy’ crosses one’s mind.
His friend, like I said, seemed to be the completely opposite. As he stood on the porch with a subtle and polite smile plastered on his face, the likes of the smiles of royalty, I noticed the opulence of his clothes. He wore a golden embroidered coat that was hip-length (and which is quite the fashion these days for higher-class men), with lovely patterns and exquisite shapes on it. Under this linen jacket, he wore a vermillion surface-ornament satin cloth. Below, bright red breeches showed, which were tight around his waist and, larger and loose fitting around his legs. The stockings were not red (of course! That would be appalling! Red STOCKINGS? Ooh-la-la!) and they were held just below his knees. His shoes were amazingly attractive… they were decorated with golden ribbon and lace. But what held my bland green eyes was his face. He had the soft brown long hair, flowing down in loose curls, that had just recently come into fashion. His kind eyes sparkled like black onyx chips under long eyelashes. His lips were like a girls’ – a mimicry of Madam Natividad’s perfect original even. The large orange feather in his headcap fluttered as he nodded his head as greeting.
I was flustered for one second – Monsieur Natividad managed to throw me a disdained look during this moment – and then I said, “Bonjour, Messieurs.” I did a little bow. “Entré, s'il vous plait. Come in, please”.
They made their way in through the threshold as Madame Natividad came rushing in, her long gown trailing behind her and the huge plumage in her lace-trimmed hair bobbing up and down. Pleasantries were exchanged as Madam Oriabel shook the Monsieur’s hand gracefully, introducing herself. I stood on the sidelines and watched.
As Monsieur Natividad said the new handsome guest’s name, I realized his name entirely befitted him. Beauregard, Monsieur Natividad said. Beauregard. Which means, in Old French, “beautiful exterior”. Papa had tried to educate me as a child (which unfortunately didn’t work out since I had to start earning for the family as a servant) and so I knew this. I knew beau meant "beautiful" and regard meant "aspect, outlook," hence "beautiful aspect" or "beautiful outlook."
Soon, the exchange of greetings were over and Madam Oriabel led her husband and his friend into the dining hall – where prepared tea awaited them. The tea I had prepared – but no one was paying much attention to me, now, were they? I patted the headcloth wound around my head, making sure it wouldn’t come down, and trotted to the kitchen. I had braided my dirty blonde hair earlier and had wrapped it circularly around the back of my head, and then I had covered the braids with my usual kerchief. Of course, I made sure to weave the cloth into my braids, but still I checked for it was always better to be safer than sorry.
As they chatted in the dining room, I busied myself by taking out the buns and rolls that were to be served as soon as Madam Natividad gave her signal. Which was, as I soon heard, “VIVIENNE! MONSIEUR WOULD LIKE SOME BREAD ROLLS NOW!”
Time passed right in front my eyes, and yet I didn’t notice it. Soon, it was almost seven thirty in the evening – and tea was still going on. That was when Madam Oriabel called me out (I witnessed a threesome of boisterously laughing hyenas; if I wasn’t the one who had made the tea, I would’ve thought that the one who did had added a bit too much of brown sugar) and asked me to clear out the table. ‘Clear out’ as opposed to ‘set it up for dinner’ – which was what I was planning on hearing. That was when she told me: they (the three troubadours) wanted to play a little game of cards. And I understood the alteration of the sentence.
Monsieur Abélard Natividad seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he chatted with Monsieur Beauregard, as I carefully and slowly took away all the soiled china platters one by one. He was dressed in the normal garbs – long earwax-colored linen jacket with black frills and laces… the usual ‘ugh’. He seemed to look even more craftier than normal as he discussed politics with the guest of honor… or maybe that was just his clothes reflecting back on him.
After I cleared out the antique table, I felt reluctant to immediately start the washing of plates and the norms, and so I indulged myself in an activity I wouldn’t be caught doing otherwise. I peeped through the door and watched as the game began. Eavesdropping is another crime I committed as I did this – I could hear every word they were saying as the kitchen and the dining hall were practically adjoined.
The game proceeded, first slowly, and then when things got more interesting, quicker. I got to know a lot about Beauregard as I peeked – conversations are otherworldly things that made the listener know all about the speaker. Although, of course, in this case, I wasn’t the listener exactly… I was what do you call them? Eaves-listeners?
“Ha!” said Madam Oriabel Natividad, and she slammed some cards on to the table top. The legs beneath the circular top quivered with the force of her strength.
“I don’t think so”, Monsieur Beauregard said with a strong smile.
“Nah-hah!” Monsieur Abélard Natividad was exuberant as he laid some more cards on the already growing pile.
Unfortunately, this conversation I couldn’t comprehend since Papa had never taught me anything about Snap, House, or any other card game. I knew these were only the basics… I knew there were other gambling games of all sorts. Apparently, this was the latter, as far as I could tell. The reason I knew was because there was a scanty pile of coins next to Monsieur Beauregard’s elbow. It just kept growing and growing with each passing minute. I wondered in whose pocket it’d be by the end of the night and I grew tense watching the game from the sidelines as it got even more serious.
“LE VIN, VIVIENNE! THE WINE!!!” Madam Oriabel screeched, her eyes fixated on the pile of growing money. Those eyes kept darting between the cards on the table and the cards in her hands, too. I jumped in my place, startled – like a deer caught in headlights. I was quick to recover though…
“Here, Madam”, I said sweetly, as I put down the single glass of red wine, the best kind of le vin rose, from the plastic tray in my arms. In close-up, I could see how the game was going even more clearly. It seemed as though Monsieur Beauregard was winning, for both Madam and Monsieur Natividad glowered with world-weary faces.
And then I saw it.
What Monsieur Natividad was doing.
The worst crime of all, the crime of the scum and the filth – not one you’d expect from a person of high status, not one from a poor man, not one from any person at all, actually. He was cheating. Cheating. Cheating. CHEATING. CHEATING!!! Didn’t anybody here have the mental ability to read my thoughts? I was frantic. Couldn’t anyone hear the mental wave of shock that blew up in my head? It was too bad really. Or else Monsieur Beauregard could’ve caught Monsieur Natividad red-handed… But of course, like it did all men – rich or poor - wine and the solid promise of gagner, winning, had made the young dandy so light-headed that it would’ve been impossible to get a response from him even if I wasn’t sending mental thought waves, even if I was directly yelling at him that he was being cheated.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. How could Monsieur Beauregard not notice the unsubtle trick of an ace being drawn from his opponent, his so-called friend's belt? It was so obvious – with the way his foxy eyes were darting about inside the whites of his eyeballs and the way he was moving about on his chair shiftily.
I trembled within. A good man was being cheated at an unfair game. How pitiful. If Monsieur Beauregard had been a man of the same mettle of Monsieur Natividad, I wouldn’t have felt this angry… but Monsieur Beauregard is not made of the same mettle as Monsieur Natividad. And that had made all the difference in my emotions of this matter. I glanced at Madam Natividad’s expression before I left the table. Innocent, innocent. Ah, how wonderful. Now, I’ve got to realize that my Madam is not as great as I’ve always assumed her to be – she was in on the game. Not the card game – the cheating game. She was her husband’s right-hand man as well as his wife. They were partners in crime.
As I stood in the kitchen, the tray on which the wine had been, sweaty in my clamped down left hand, I thought of what I was about to do. I couldn’t let the matter be ignored. I had to do something. A nip in the bud should do the trick, I thought, as I pondered of how Monsieur and Madam Natividad could be cured of their newly-discovered cheating habits. Gathering my skirts up, not caring for my shabby looks, I darted out the back kitchen door and through the wrought-iron gates, into the street and down the road… right into the heart of the village. And there I headed to the telegram center.
“Yes, what can I do for you, Missus?” the beefy man behind the counter asked, a bored expression etched into his features permanently.
“I would like this to be written down and telegraphed, please,” I said, pulling out a few coins, a few Francs, from my petticoat’s pocket and giving it to him.
“Yeeess,” he drawled, “who would you like to send it to?” he continued.
I smiled exuberantly. “Mrs. Annie Hogg Natividad, mother of Monsieur Abélard Natividad, please”.