Gertrude Stein Solves a Mystery
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during July of 1933 motored to the new country house at Bilignin in their ancient Ford named Godiva during a hot spell when there was no there at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris. At this time Gertrude Stein was still only a legend in her own mind and perhaps the minds of Picasso and Matisse and young insecure black haired Hemingway and Fitzgerald who had long known her crew cut immensity but before the year was out she would become definitely a legend and not perhaps a legend.
At Bilignin Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas had servant trouble. The servants were sickly and sickly servants serve badly and must go so they went.
At this time near the new house at Bilignin there lived a mannish neighbor who wore the pants and her dear friend a not so mannish Englishwoman. The mannish neighbor offered to help find a housekeeper and gardener a local couple married if possible for Gertrude Stein to hire as servants.
This offer caused Alice B. Toklas to invite the mannish neighbor who wore the pants and the not so mannish Englishwoman to tea at the new house at Bilignin tea of the broad shouldered English kind in hopes that good servant advice would be given.
On this fine July afternoon with some humidity so that a storm was expected the four ladies drank English tea on the lawn at the new house at Bilignin. Alice B. Toklas had to serve it herself but the not so mannish Englishwoman helped with the cleanup while Gertrude Stein and the mannish neighbor discussed the servant problem with reference to Marx Voltaire and Emerson. Soon however Gertrude Stein saw the expected storm and the seeing made them hurry inside from the lawn outside the new house at Bilignin.
Eau de vie a colorless liqueur tinged with the fragrance of raspberries was served in the parlor by Alice B. Toklas who by now was glowering at the serving but Gertrude Stein in her immensity did not notice. Typical remarked the not so mannish Englishwoman to Alice B. Toklas we have to do all the work while they discuss the servant problem eh Alice.
To which remark the broad shouldered mannish volatile neighbor whose name was Madame Caesar and who wore the pants replied you are lucky I keep you you English sheep I have seen you seeing little Fleurette at the post office in Bilignin. And it was true the Englishwoman had the melting eyes of a sheep whether French or English.
On this fine July afternoon with increasing humidity as if summoned by these harsh words a pretty little bicycle bell was heard outside the new house at Bilignin causing Madame Caesar the mannish neighbor to drop her monocle in the seeing that she was having.
The seeing that she was having was of little Fleurette of the post office at Bilignin dismounting from her bicycle and being seen by the not so mannish Englishwoman whose seeing was a glint and a fish and a rose and a bicycle. And this vivid English seeing was seen very well by Madame Caesar who said what the hell is that girl doing here.
She can cook said the not so mannish Englishwoman with a petulant toss of her head well that is a start said Alice B. Toklas gathering up the bottle and glasses onto the tray and Gertrude Stein heaved her imperturbable ego off the parlor sofa and said let us talk to her why not.
Then little Fleurette of the post office at Bilignin stepped up prettily into the parlor and inquired if a housekeeper was needed for twenty francs a week she could cook and keep house and Raymond her brother could garden the roses badly needed cutting.
During this speech little Fleurette's lubricious sharp black eyes stayed fixed on the melting sheep like eyes of the not so mannish Englishwoman as thunder rolled across the sky because in surreal fashion they were back outside again staring at the threatening clouds perspiring in unladylike fashion from the humidity.
Let us go inside I feel the influence of an extraneous literary movement said Gertrude Stein whose eyes were also sharp under the tanned brow and gray crew cut and while they hurried inside Gertrude Stein saw and could hardly believe and looked again and without question saw and could hardly believe she saw the not so mannish Englishwoman reach out a white heavily ringed left hand and pat the charming bottom of little Fleurette of the post office at Bilignin.
Gertrude Stein's seeing was not a glint a fish a rose or a bicycle. It was an oh shit trouble ahead kind of seeing because the mannish neighbor with the volatile temper named Madame Caesar had also seen. And so under a threatening sky they all hastened to follow the charming bottom of little Fleurette into the new house at Bilignin some with placid thoughts some with calamitous thoughts.
Deep within an overstuffed chair leaning forward her hands on her soon to be legendary thighs as painted by Picasso and Vallotton and sculpted by Lipschitz Gertrude Stein quizzed little Fleurette about whether she would mop and cook and sew and scrub for twenty francs a week and whether her brother Raymond would garden while weather sounds of a moist plopping nature were heard through the open door. Alice B. Toklas made a sound at the answers of Fleurette an approving sound heard by Gertrude Stein.
So little Fleurette with her tender buttons and sharp black eyes and charming bottom was hired on that no longer fine July afternoon with numerous small wet objects beginning their falling. No one stared at the sky as they had all hastened inside.
When little Fleurette left a vivid argument erupted between the mannish neighbor who wore the jodhpurs and the not so mannish Englishwoman who by the way wore a cream colored georgette shirtwaist with a peach colored cameo at her white neck. This argument was much more vivid than a glint a fish a rose or a bicycle for after all such things are charming things like the pretty little bicycle bell bottom of Fleurette but now Madame Caesar and the not so mannish Englishwoman with the white neck accused each other of many things that were not charming and many domestic failures.
A flush mounted to the white cheeks of the cameoed Englishwoman as Madame Caesar accused her of having the hots for little Fleurette and causing her to be employed chez Gertrude Stein where her charming bottom could be seen by all who wished to be seeing especially certain sheep eyed neighbors.
At this the plump lip of the not so mannish Englishwoman trembled and she flung out her heavily ringed left hand and cried your jealousy makes me sick knocking over the bottle of eau de vie concocted after many failures from ripe raspberries grown at the new house at Bilignin the previous summer by Alice B. Toklas.
While Gertrude Stein generally enjoyed a fine argument even a drunken confrontation among geniuses on a hot July afternoon with wet objects falling outside she had a rule in her perhaps legendary immensity and this rule had to be observed by all she invited including mannish neighbors in jodhpurs and not so mannish Englishwomen with flushed cheeks and this rule was that anyone who upset Alice B. Toklas who by now was sitting on the floor amid spilled eau de vie her eyes threatening to let fall small wet objects must leave right now and no more gracious hostess.
The volatile neighbor in black linty jodhpurs and her dear friend who were no longer speaking to each other were seen to the door by sullen exotic Alice B. Toklas who was not speaking. No one was speaking on this moist July afternoon though little Fleurette's bicycle bell could still be heard down the lane for those who were hearing.
What ill behaved women lovey said Alice B. Toklas swabbing at the oriental rug in the parlor and Gertrude Stein said well pussy at least we have servants coming tomorrow Fleurette can vacuum with the new vacuuming machine and Raymond the brother can trim the roses. But the august tanned brow of Gertrude Stein was obscured by a line of worry as Gertrude Stein looked out toward the neighboring house obscured by the dropping of wet objects. And even the knowing by Gertrude Stein that she was perhaps a legend to Joyce her archrival and Lawrence and Sherwood Anderson who at this time was at the height of his fame did not ease this line of worry.
Next morning a scream was coming. The scream was coming from the neighboring house so in haste Alice B. Toklas in her exotic wrapper and Gertrude Stein following in her brown corduroy robe and sandals slogged through the mud caused by abstract teardrop shaped objects falling to the jodhpured neighbor Madame Caesar who was pointing to the ditch by her house her eyes wide with horror.
Meantime a bicycle bell was ringing and some were screaming at the seeing of the not so mannish Englishwoman lying in the ditch shot twice in the right side of the head the muddy gun still clutched in her right hand her sightless eyes as moist and abstract as the sky.
The line of worry obscuring the august tanned brow of Gertrude Stein deepened. Gertrude Stein made a sound and the sound was heard by Alice B. Toklas who made a corresponding sound. The soon to be legendary writer and the long nosed companion saw the constabulaire in its arriving and returned to the new house. Numerous wet objects were still falling and it was still a hot July.
Are you thinking what I am thinking pussy inquired Gertrude Stein as Alice B. Toklas ruffled the wet gray crew cut with a towel in front of the fireplace in the parlor. Are we thinking that Madame Caesar used and then put the pistol in the hand of her dear friend replied Alice B. Toklas. Just so said Gertrude Stein and they both had a hefty swig of eau de vie.
In two days the inquest was over in its overing and the verdict was suicide.
Twice in the head not likely said Gertrude Stein as the two ladies motored home from the inquest in Godiva the ancient Ford. We shall stay away from the jodhpured one she won't be invited to tea don't worry exclaimed Alice B. Toklas. That evening Gertrude Stein called a French lieutenant named Rambouillet whom she met in the Great War and learned that military men always shoot themselves twice in the head if they can manage it so for the evening she stopped thinking the thing that she had been thinking.
And all this would have been and actually was merely a curious footnote in the vivid life of Gertrude Stein except that little Fleurette started work at the new house at Bilignin the following day and exhibited the troublesome charming bottom which was hard not to be seeing as she bent over frequently.
And even the devoted proper immense crew cut Gertrude Stein who was rewriting her legendary never ending thousand page book in the upstairs bedroom during this French summer was distracted by the bent over bottom and for a moment intensely wished to reach out and pat it and even extended her right hand which caused her to remember that the charming bottom had been patted by the left hand of the no longer living Englishwoman.
Pat with a left hand shoot with a right hand. Right shoot pat left. Ditch right pat heavily ringed sheep bottom. Left fish bicycle hand pat shoot right bell. No. No no not likely. Gertrude Stein observed but did not pat the calamitous bottom of little Fleurette while dust bunnies disappeared into the efficient maw of the new vacuuming machine which made a loud and unpleasant sound in the French afternoon unlike the pleasant whisk whisk whisk whisk of a good French broom.
She did it pussy it was Madame Caesar the neighbor but we'll never prove it said Gertrude Stein putting down her pen while Alice B. Toklas looked down from the upstairs window at Raymond the gardener who was clipping the roses with a snip and another snip and all the snips were precise. The Englishwoman was left handed and would not have shot herself with her right hand that is that is that is that but the right handed Madame Caesar will just claim the Englishwoman was right handed and the Englishwoman had no other friends here to say otherwise Gertrude Stein continued picking up her fountain pen a green marbleized Schaeffer and writing a homespun phrase over and over on a piece of paper which she then added to the immense stack of papers on the desk.
Perhaps someone else did it and placed the pistol in her right hand I have seen Raymond the gardener seeing la petite Fleurette also and there is something about his seeing that smells like a fish or you know a bicycle and so on mused Alice B. Toklas whose mood had reverted to the placid practical usual domestic mood of Alice B. Toklas.
So he is not the brother of Fleurette and he might be jealous of the attentions of the cameoed one with the plump lip nodded Gertrude Stein and reflected awhile. And as Gertrude Stein stared out the upstairs window at Raymond the gardener who was a good looking bootblack type as has also been said of Picasso Gertrude Stein made a sound that was jolly and robust and which came from the belly.
But he is left handed too look how he snips his snipping clears him. He would have remembered even in haste to place the pistol in the left hand of the cameoed one things sometimes come clear in a simple homespun way if you have been seeing what there is to be seeing and that is that is that is that said Gertrude Stein interspersing her statement with many more jolly sounds from the belly.
That is a relief I would hate for him to be sent away he snips the roses so well and there is such a servant problem said Alice B. Toklas who failed to see the humor as always.
That is not the point pussy the point is that definitely it was the right handed volatile Madame Caesar who killed the Englishwoman said Gertrude Stein. Will you please send Madame Caesar our calling card stating Gertrude Stein declines any further friendship.
Yes of course I shall send the card Raymond can take it but should we not also notify the constabulaire asked Alice B. Toklas.
Regrettably we cannot prove anything but we have at least solved this small mystery to our moral satisfaction which is a relief replied Gertrude Stein. You see pussy all is mystery we live in the middle of something grand and terrible not knowing where we came from not knowing where we are going not knowing what we are doing here or if there is a here here. However in solving the case of the sheep eyed Englishwoman we are comforted by uncovering the small vivid truth which incidentally explains why the mystery story is the grandest and most cathartic of literary forms.
Upon completing this statement the mood of Gertrude Stein darkened suddenly in the manner of geniuses. Gertrude Stein pooched out her lower lip while gazing upon the stack of papers and rubbed her august brow with her right hand muttering perhaps I should throw all this away and write a well plotted conventional mystery and made a sound of despair.
There there let us forget it if we can't prove anything we can't prove anything replied the placid practical no longer sullen Alice B. Toklas who had a small dark downy mustache growing. Come here lovey look at the size of that rose he is cutting is it a rose it is as big as jodhpurs or a fish or a bicycle.
A rose cannot be a bicycle observed Gertrude Stein rising from her chair and looking down from the upstairs window.
A rose is a rose you can say that again said Alice B. Toklas stroking her upper lip where there was definitely a mustache growing.
There is always something more if you have been seeing what there was to be seeing responded Gertrude Stein in her monk's haircut which imparted a dignity like that of Joan of Arc. I need to go back to my writing now pussy I think I am onto something that I am thinking and what I am thinking has to do with what you just said something about roses.
Picasso and his second wife will be arriving at dinnertime said Alice B. Toklas do not forget. And we have to buy two chickens at the market Picasso likes my recipe for roasted chicken.
Okay okay okay said Gertrude Stein. You made me forget what I was thinking something about roses I almost had it but now the thinking has turned to Picasso so shall we go and get the chickens.
And they motored in the ancient Ford to Belley to buy chickens and perhaps they are still driving there talking about bells roses and bicycles. On the way Gertrude Stein who always drove and dreamed for the two of them turned to Alice B. Toklas and said will you always love me pussy even after I am dead and Alice B. Toklas replied oh lovey yes I said yes I will yes
But that is another story.