The gatepost, stuccoed pink to match the villa, bore a glazed tile painted with a blue number, the same as that in the advertisement. Please inquire in person. Avenue des Fleurs, 72.
A hot day, and so bright. Sun flared off windowpanes and wrung sparks from freshly watered shrubs. One after another, applicants paused at the locked gate, considered its wrought-iron flourishes and the distinctly self-satisfied hue of the residence glimpsed through its bars. They checked the number twice, as if lost, hesitated before pushing the black button in its burnished ring of brass.
When the houseboy appeared with a ring of keys, his severely combed hair shining with petroleum jelly, they ducked in response to his bow and followed him through the silently swinging gate with their heads still lowered, squinting dizzily at the glittering crushed white quartz that lined the rose beds along the path.
"Won't you sit down?"
May received them in the sunroom. Behind her chair, glass doors offered a view of terraced back gardens, an avalanche of extravagantly bright blooms, a long, blue-tiled swimming pool that splattered its reflection over the white walls and ceiling.
Of the eleven men and women who answered her notice, four did not resist staring at May outright, and she dismissed them immediately.
Whatever the name Mrs. Arthur Cohen might suggest to someone answering an ad, May would not have been it. To begin with, wasn't Cohen a Jewish name? And there she was, unmistakably Chinese. Now who in 1927 had encountered such an intermarriage, even among the Riviera's population of gamblers and gigolos, its yachtsmen and consumptives and inexhaustible reserves of deposed, transient countesses living off pawned tiaras? In the summer months, when sun worshippers overtook the city of Nice-women walking bare-legged on the boulevards, and bare-lipped, too, tennis skirts no lower than the knee and not a smudge of lipstick, their hair bobbed, their necks brown and muscular, canine-May Cohen looked not so much out of style as otherworldly.
Despite the heat, she received her eleven candidates in traditional dress: a mandarin coat of pink silk embroidered with a pattern of cranes and fastened with red frogs, matching pink trousers, and tiny silk shoes that stuck out from under their hems like two pointed red tongues.
Her abundant and absolutely black hair was coiled in a chignon. Pulled back, it accentuated a pretty widow's peak, a forehead as pale and smooth as paper. Her eyes were black and long, each brow a calligraphic slash; her full lips were painted red. She had a narrow nose with nervous, delicate nostrils, imperious, excitable nostrils that seemed to have been formed with almost fanatical attention. But each part of May - her cuticles and wristbones and earlobes, the blue-white luminous hollow between her clavicles-inspired the same conclusion: that to assemble her had required more than the usual workaday genius of biology. At fifty, her beauty was still so extreme as to be an affront to any sensible soul. Her French, like her English, was impeccable.
Of the remaining seven applicants (those who did not disqualify themselves by staring), the first offered references from a local sanitarium. Perhaps this explained his solicitousness, his tender careful moist gaze, as if she were moribund. "Please accept my apologies," she said. "You won't do."
The second was, she decided, an idiot. "You have had - it was an accident? " he asked, and she smiled, but not kindly.
The third, a narrow, ascetic Swiss with an inexpertly sewn harelip and a carefully mended coat, looked as if she needed employment. But she wrinkled her nose with fastidious disapproval, and May rang for the houseboy to see her out.
The fourth's excitement as he glimpsed the tightly bound arch of May's right foot, his damp hands and posture of unrestrained anticipation: these presaged trouble. May uncrossed her legs, she stood and bid him a good afternoon.
Excerpted from The Binding Chair; or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison Copyright© 2000 by Kathryn Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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