Madame Xiang

 

    Excerpt from Odour of Rectitude

 

 

 

      One morning Picard received an invitation from Rolland Mercier, the deputy minister. Things were done in style in those days, particularly among French Canadians. A messenger, dressed up to the nines, handed a nicely framed card to Picard, on a silver salver of course.

      “The deputy minister and his wife request the presence of Mr Maurice Picard at our birthday party, held at the Polar Bear Club next Friday at 8pm.”

      Thankful for the distraction, Picard accepted with alacrity.

      It turned out to be a grand affair, so much so, that he entirely forgot the gnawing concerns which lately beset him.

      At the end of the meal each guest was presented with a Chinese silk cookie, on a plate bearing his name, which one after the other opened affectedly amid laughter and teasing. When Picard’s turn came he put on a good act. Screwing up his face in the manner of a mime, making roguish movements, he opened his cookie with deliberation. It was a commendable performance, worthy of a Thespian in his prime, eliciting applause from the women, and nodding approval from the men.

      It all stopped abruptly when Picard, turning deathly pale, moaning piteously, slumped down in his chair, lamenting repeatedly:

      “No, no, oh no.”

      Stunned, uncertain whether to construe his behaviour as further histrionics, or an expression of genuine grief, the company fell silent. Someone nearby took up the small roll of paper, unfurled it, and read:

      “I have found you at last. Signed: Madame Xiang.”

      Hands were stretched out by others who wished to see with their own eyes what just had been heard.

      Meanwhile Picard, forcibly trying to regain his composure, announced with a pained grin:

      “Forgive me, I had a sudden attack of faintness.”

      “Any cause to worry?” the deputy minister’s wife inquired solicitously.

      Shaking his head Picard replied:

      “None at all. Just the same it’s best for me to leave. A good night’s rest will restore my strength.”

      Chuckling he added:

      “Don’t forget, I’m not a spring chicken anymore.”

      On Monday Picard showed up at his office a changed man. His eyes, always bright, possessing that inquiring look of alert men, were dull and downcast. The hitherto bold, purposeful stride, a distinctive trait, had become hesitant. He left behind an impression of a man with fear on his neck and  lead at his feet.

      “Did a black dog walk over you, my dear colleague?” he was asked.

      Grimacing annoyed, silently appealing for compassion, he protested:

      “What a notion! I am just a bit under the weather, that’s all.”

      “On account of that Chinese cookie?” his colleague was about to say, but bit his lips.

      Of course the tattletale drums were busy, they resounded throughout the ministry and beyond. Tongues wagged, ears were strained in an endeavour not to miss a single beat. The whispers grew more insistent in view of Picard’s relentless probings about people, women in particular. Subordinates as much as colleagues were confounded by this increasing interest in females, deemed prurient by some, unseemly by others for a department head getting on in years.

  Thus ribald jests started to circulate, evoked more by sentiments of discomfort than conviction. No one rightly understood what the chief was after, yet many were annoyed by the persistent questioning.

  A week later Picard failed to show up at the office. For three days running he missed appointments, a fact that struck others as unusual, since he seldom, if ever, remained absent; certainly not without leaving behind detailed information where he could be reached, plus what he wished done while being away. Questions were asked, eyebrows were raised, but none felt inclined to investigate further.

  “The minister must surely be aware of the situation,” was the consensus. Besides, not even his colleagues knew where Picard lived, or which places he frequented. His small home, sitting secluded on the banks of the Ottawa River, suited the single, unattached chief to a tee.

  A woman, Mrs Prat, had been engaged to maintain the place. Having been away a few days, therefore feeling guilty, she approached the house with a measure of anxiety. To her surprise she found the front door not only unlocked but left ajar. Upon entering she called out:

  “Are you home, Mr Picard?”

  Not a whisper could be heard, nothing was stirring in the house.

  “Mr Picard, I am back,” she announced a bit louder.

  A disquieting silence reigned, inexplicable so since signs of Picard’s presence caught her eyes. His jacket hung on a peg; his hat lay on the rack above; shoes were carelessly placed.

  “Strange, very strange,” Mrs Prat said to herself, for Picard, doubtlessly nearby, could hardly be called a quietist; far from it. His Falstaffian rumblings were well known to her. Tiptoeing about with abated breath, strained ears, and wide-open eyes, she suddenly flinched upon hearing moans coming from above.

  “Is that you, Mr Picard?”

  “Yes, yes,” came a muffled reply.

  Reluctant, yet also relieved, she climbed the stairs. What she saw made her gasp. Blinking several times, wiping putative gossamer from both eyes, she stood there gasping in astonishment. Seeing her employer in bed on a sunny morning deemed her a trick of the senses. Noticing his ravaged condition made her wince. How could a man, brimming with good health a week ago, an epitome of vitality, now resemble death’s head on a mopstick?

  “What happened, did you have an accident?” she asked baffled to the core.

  Picard shook his head:

  “No.”

  “Have you seen a doctor?”

  The question, innocent enough, made Picard bolt upright.

  “I don’t want a doctor,” he expelled, then added: “See if you can contact Mr Basil. Ask him to come.”

  Bruno Basil, his friend, arrived later that afternoon.

  “What’s up, Maurice?” he inquired in his breezy way.

  “She was here.”

  Taken aback, Basil remarked:

  “Who was here?”

  “Madame Xiang.”

  Recalling the episode at the Polar Bear Club, Basil cast an oblique glance at his friend, who lamented:

  “All is lost, I am done for.”

  “Nonsense, you are out of sorts, that’s all.”

  Knitting his brow, squinting at his friend, Basil exclaimed:

  “Who is this Madame Xiang anyway? Does she exist, or is it an apparition evoked for self-punishment?”

  “She is my nemesis.”

   Fiddlesticks! Quit snivelling and tell me about it.”

  “Not here, let’s meet at the Country Club later tonight.”