Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Leonard Merrick The Epic of the Heavenly Cook

I have just spent three hours googling the Internet to find a comic short story by Leonard Merrick (1864-1939), a largely-forgotten writer of novels and short stories in the early 20th century.  I had read the story earlier this year and wanted to read it again to savor the elegance of its initial exposition.

However, as I remembered neither the title of the story nor the characters' names, I had a devil of a time finding it.  But at last success!  The story is called "The Epic of the Heavenly Cook."  First published in 1925, the story was later collected in the 1932 anthology My Funniest Story.  I am not sure of the story's copyright status, so I will just give the first few pages as a taste of Merrick's ironic style.

The Epic of the Heavenly Cook

At a date when Parisians had good bread and manners, and there were still artists in Montmartre, a young man sat dining in the Cafe of the Heavenly Cook, and he called to the waitress: "Bring me a word, please."

"A what, monsieur?" said she.

"I want a monosyllable to rhyme with 'rose' and mean 'after hesitation, but tenderly'," he told her, impatient at the delay.

She neglected his order, but he found merit in the waitress.

The incident blossomed to acquaintance and ripened to romantic passion, on the young man's side.  Henceforth he went often to the little restaurant, begging of the dainty waitress another monosyllable that he never got.  While not averse from compliments and odes, Clementine, who was the daughter of the proprietress, knew her worth too well to say yes to an unfledged poet.  Especially as, when he did get a slim volume out at last, he was as hard up as ever, and the publishers repented their pluck.

Now, soon afterwards, the unavoidable necessity for paying his way compelled the suitor, whose name was Archambaud Blicq, to forsake poesy in Paris for employment in Rennes, where he had a cousin prospering with a department store; and our knowledge of the world would have led us to say that his exit from the scene would be the end of the matter.  But it was not.  For once we should have erred.  Strange to relate, the episode was to bear fruit twenty-five years later.

Twenty-five years later, an elderly gentleman, sauntering in the sunshine of the quays, chanced to pick from a box of dilapidated books, marked "4 sous each," a slender, soiled volume, with a broken back, "By Archambaud Blicq," which was not distasteful to him in parts.  Being an eminent journalist, with a column to write and nothing to write about, the elderly gentleman wrote a highly sentimental article about the broken-backed volume the fairness of its promise and the fustiness of its fate.  "What were the sufferings," he wondered wistfully, "of this Unknown, whose gifts, whose dreams, whose aspiring mind are revealed to me by accident long after his gallant hopes and bitter tears have " etc. etc.  And the praiseworthy publishers, having refreshed their memory and ascertained there would be no royalties to pay, took a sporting chance and advertised a new edition of the thing.

This time it let them down less harshly.  In strictly limited circles people mentioned the work.  Even among a few eccentrics, "Archambaud Blicq" became a transient cult.  And next, an out-at-elbows hack, with vague memories of Blicq, laboured for a square meal by contriving a biographical sketch, in which he narrated intimate falsehoods of his "lost comrade."  Labouring to the limit of his capabilities, he "deplored the fact that an unrequited attachment for a girl of singular beauty the Clementine of the odes who had been the daughter of a widow keeping a restaurant at Montmartre, had so wrought upon his comrade's mind that the ill-starred youth had destroyed himself in the Seine."

That he had dramatically broken his heart and committed suicide delighted his admirers.  The publishers were pleased with him, too.  They felt that Blicq had done all he could to forward sales.  And now the most ardent of the eccentrics were eager to identify the restaurant to lunch where the lover had languished, to pose where the poet had prayed.

Meanwhile, time had been proceeding with Clementine.  She had lost her mother, and found a husband, and content with the exchange, reigned cheerfully in the restaurant by his side.  Save for her figure, she was not without some faint resemblance to the dainty waitress of long ago.  What is called a "fine woman" by people who can't have too much of a good thing.  Her amplitude put no restraint upon her energies, and no patronne of the quarter bustled to more purpose than Madame Pidoux, or boasted a livelier turn for profits.  Pidoux acted as chef.  His taste inclined to women of liberal circumference, and in his loving eyes Clementine was no less fair than efficient.  A successful marriage.

At the hour of dejeuner one morning, Clementine, alert behind her counter of the Cafe of the Heavenly Cook, noted the entrance of two strange and inquisitive looking ladies.  In lieu of seeking seats, the ladies approached her, and the elder said, "Pardon, madame, if it is within your knowledge, would you be so amiable as to inform us whether this is the restaurant where monsieur Archambaud Blicq used to dine?"

"Monsieur what?" asked the fat matron shortly.

"We inquire about Archambaud Blicq," said the younger, in reverent tones.

[And so forth through the various comic developments until Archambaud Blicq himself, now a middle-aged shopkeeper and family man, chances to visit the Cafe of the Heavenly Cook.]

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