Every morning at half past ten I would leave the Hotel Gassion; my neighbors came from the Hotel de France. In the Boulevard des Pyrénées, on separate benches in front of the same mountains, one reading Daisy Miller, others reviewing their homework, we would warm ourselves in the sun. My neighbors were five girls and a governess. Anyone who looked at the girls distractedly could have taken them for a series of specimens (of different sizes, of different ages that ranged from nine to nineteen) of the same person: submissive, blonde, tall and slim, with gray eyes and a blue uniform. Of the governess – an elderly, ill-tempered woman – I have but a vague memory.
The regulars at the Sporting Bar informed me that the girls were my compatriots; that their father, "an American of Béarnese blood," had a ranch and a vast fortune in Buenos Aires; and that now the family was in Pau so as to receive an inheritance.
One morning I came out of the hotel at ten o'clock. A little while later the eldest of the sisters appeared and asked me whether she could share my bench. We immediately struck up conversation.
"My name is Phyllis," she said.
"Do you like Pau?" I asked.
"It bores me just as much as the ranch does. So does the live I lead ... With Mademoiselle breathing down our necks, who could have any fun? Don't think that it was always like this. My parents are crazy: either they leave me completely to my own devices or they watch me night and day. In July I was in Rome alone, at the house of some Italian girls whom I had met in Puente del Inca. You're a writer, aren't you?"
"How did you know?"
"In Pau one knows everything. Do you want me to tell you what happened to me in Rome? You'll find it amusing. Here comes Mademoiselle with the girls. I'll see you tonight in the casino."
It was not a girl I met up with that evening, but a charming woman who took me by the arm and threw her head back laughing. I exclaimed:
"How you've changed!"
"Do not think like that," she said. "If they discover that I escaped, they'll kill me and lock me up. Do you want me to tell you about my Roman love affairs?"
The golden Phyllis, virginal in look with the squawks of a bird, informed me that one of the Papal Gentlemen – I saw him in a signed photo, almost fat in his impeccable white coat – had asked for her hand in marriage. The scene took place in a restaurant in Rome, and I do not remember the response the girl gave, but I do recall that she offended the maître d'hôtel by asking for a beefsteak.
"It's Friday," said the Gentleman.
"I know," Phyllis replied.
"So how dare you eat meat?!"
"I'm Argentine and in my country we don't observe the fast all year round."
"We're in Rome, I'm a Papal Gentleman and here we most certainly do observe the fast every Friday of the year."
"I will never again eat meat on a Friday. But I've already ordered it and I don't want to annoy the waiter by telling him not to bother bringing it out."
"You'd prefer to make me sad."
("I didn't want to admit," Phyllis told me, "that I was hungry.")
They brought the beefsteak, a tempting beefsteak, and Phyllis with gestures of irritated resignation did not touch it, leaving it on its plate.
Her beau asked:
"And now why won't you eat it?"
"Because I don't want to make you sad," she replied.
"Now that you've ordered it, eat it," he conceded disdainfully.
Phyllis did not wait for him to insist. Still angry, but with both haste and pleasure, she devoured the beefsteak. Her beau exclaimed in a pained voice:
"I would never expected a blow like that."
"You're still making fun of me. That you would eat that meat and hurt my feelings."
"You told me to eat it."
"I wanted to test you and now I'm disappointed," the Gentleman observed.
Nevertheless, a few days later he took her to the beaches of Ostia. It was very hot, and in the middle of the afternoon the Gentleman admitted:
"You make me uncomfortable. Although it pains me to say it, I cannot be silent: I desire you."
Phyllis replied that if he did not possess her this very evening, they would never see each other again. The nobleman fell to his knees, kissed her hand and, almost crying, said that she should not allow herself to have such evil thoughts; that very soon they would get married; and that very soon she would be a princess. Phyllis then explained to him that she was Argentine and in her country nobility didn't mean a thing; that in Buenos Aires or in any part of the country she was a person from a very well-known and, what is more, a very rich family; that her parents had ranches and that, on the other hand, a European nobleman was a rather suspicious item. Despite her loving him and her not doubting the purity of his sentiments, she could not hide her innermost conviction that he was planning a marriage of convenience ... All this occurred in the train that took them back to Rome amidst a crowd who filled both seat and aisle. A crowd who was chewing on sandwiches and who seemed very close during this sultry twilight hour.
When they arrived, Phyllis asked her beau where he was planning on taking her and the courtier mumbled in vague phrases mixing together names of restaurants and cinemas. Phyllis implacably repeated her threat: make her his or never see her again. Her beau then began to explain that, in Rome, there was no such place to go.
"There are no hotels for couples," he said, somewhere between proudly and desperately.
"And you don't have an apartment?"
"An apartment to bring girls back home? No one in Rome has such a place. One would have to be very rich. I've been told that before the war ..."
"Take me somewhere," Phyllis insisted, adding in the Argentine dialect: "that's why you're (sos) a man."
The two then wandered endlessly through the streets. When Phyllis saw a prostitute on a corner, she had her solution. She said:
"Let's go to this woman's place."
"Impossible to talk to her," her beau got defensive. "We can't approach her together. And I can't leave you alone and approach her myself."
"So then I'll talk to her."
Her beau tried to dissuade her, repeating: "How am I supposed to take you to the apartment of a lady of the night?" He tried other arguments: "How are we going to spoil our first night of lovemaking with the sordid quarters of a woman of ill repute?" Not looking at him and with a curt tone, Phyllis asked once more, again in the Argentine familiar:
"Are you (vos) going or am I?"
The Papal courtier finally made up his mind. He spoke with the woman and the three of them walked over to her place. They did not walk all together. The woman walked, alone, a few meters ahead of them. The idea that he could be seen with a prostitute terrified him; but Phyllis couldn't have cared less whether or not anyone saw her.
As street prostitution is forbidden in Rome, every time that a policeman approached, the Gentleman became extremely anxious. Although they were not walking with the woman, he wanted to run away and tried to force Phyllis to follow him. What would he have said had they arrested him – him, a Papal Gentleman – for cavorting with prostitutes? Phyllis explained to him that they were not walking with the prostitute and that, precisely because he was a Papal Gentleman, they would not dare arrest him. Many times did they lose sight of the woman during this journey through the narrow alleyways of Ancient Rome; many times did the Gentleman declare with relief that they had lost her for good; and many times did Phyllis force him to go look for her. They always found her again. And after navigating a dark, narrow, and malodorous labyrinth, they arrived at the place. The walls of the woman's room were covered in religious picture cards; atop a small night stand was a considerable pile of statues of saints; and the bars of the bed frame were stuck all over with faded wreathes from the most recent Palm Sunday. The Gentleman stated that these witnesses made the task which lay before them much harder for him. In the adjoining kitchen the woman was frying something and manifested her impatience with thumps of the saucepan.
"The poor thing needs the room for other clients," Phyllis explained, perhaps superfluously.
Yet her beau did nothing but tremble and sweat. Phyllis repeated her ultimatum; at long last, the man fulfilled his debt as best he could and declared Phyllis a woman of adamantine. By the time they bid farewell to the mistress of the house, the mistress had regained her manners. She wished them much happiness and, indicating with a circular gesture all the pictures and statues around them, Heaven's blessing.