i had nothing but kind intentions toward the young woman, and had no desire to embarrass her, so i simply said, as gently as possible, “i am sorry, miss, but i do not believe i could sell such an object, at any price.”
she looked at me blankly, as if surprised by my statement, and i explained, perhaps a bit pompously, “this is an object such as people would have on the shelf of a large, comfortable, well-ordered household, in a peaceful countryside with the blasts of war unimaginably far away - not in , to use an inevitably overworked phrase, times like these.”
by the time i completed my pretty little speech, she had recovered her composure. “but, sir, “ she exclaimed. “you would not want to sell this - this wondrous object - to anyone. you would want to use it yourself!”
“a wondrous object, miss? pretty enough, i suppose, if one likes this sort of thing, but - wondrous?”
even as i spoke, i found myself staring more intently into the dark and swirling depths of the globe, which the young lady now pushed forward on the counter of the bistro.
“oh, yes, wondrous, indeed!”
“and what, if i may ask, is wondrous about it?”
“it is the gateway to another world!”
“you do not say so,” i replied politely. “and you, miss, you have been to this other world?”
her face fell. “alas, i have, sir - to my sorrow!” she looked down, and i saw the shadow of tear in one of her eyes.
i was now quite amused. did i mention that we were quote alone in the cafe? albert had gone home, as had the few customers who had come in that evening, and i had been preparing to close up. thus i was quite free to chaff the young woman, or even to attempt to charm her.
“why to your sorrow, miss?” i enquired. “and why should it not be to my sorrow, if i should attempt to enter the wondrous world myself? eh?”
“oh, sir,” she answered earnestly, looking straight at me, “ i failed - failed miserably! but i do not think such a stout looking fellow as yourself would fail!”
“fail at what, miss?” i asked with an encouraging smile, but without laughing outright.
“you see, “ she said, “when you enter the world of the globe, you will find a world with three things not to be found it this one.”
“and those are - “
“first - infinite wealth.”
“ah - everyone can use infinite wealth.”
“second - eternal life.”
“a bit more problematical - and the third thing?
“very nice ! but there must be some - drawback, eh, or obstacles?”
the young woman cast her eyes downward. “yes, one must pass certain tests or perform certain tasks to obtain these things. i was able to pass the first two - for infinite wealth and eternal life - but, alas, at the third gate i faltered.”
she raised her eyes again. “and so i failed - and was banished from the world of the globe. forever! but you, sir , if you would wish to purchase it, i am sure would find greater success.”
at this point i was quite charmed by this quaint tale, so redolent of the hearth and the nursery, and by its dewy-eyed teller. also, the globe itself, which was sitting on the counter directly in front of me, seemed to be exerting some hypnotic spell on me. and, as i said, there was no one else present.to laugh at my gullibility.
and so it was that i offered her the sum of two francs for her magical prize. she did not seen quite as pleased as i thought she would be, but after a moment’s hesitation, thanked me profusely. i gallantly offered her a coffee and a two-day old croissant to seal the deal and she gratefully accepted those too.
now in possession of the magical globe, i humored her by asking how i was supposed to enter it, to take my chance on infinite riches and the rest of it.
“oh, that is easy enough,” she assured me. “when i am gone - because you must be alone when you enter the globe - “
“of course,” i assented.
“you stare into the globe as intently as you can - “
“do i need a magic word?”
“oh no, so long as you concentrate - or even if you do not, for if you are alone the globe will draw you in -“
“i see. that simplifies matters.”
“but once inside the globe, you will need to know the password to enter the kingdom and face your three challenges.”
i nodded helpfully.
“you will be greeted by an elderly man whom you may or may not recognize, and he will say - ‘jean cocteau is no judge of goat cheese- ‘. and you will respond - “and leon bloy is no judge of white wine.’ do you think you can remember that?”
i had been engaged in smuggling since i was old enough to talk, so was an old hand at passwords. i assured her that i could remember.
when the young lady finished her coffee and croissant and left, i felt i had awakened from a dream. had i really been so foolish as to give her two francs for this ridiculous object? my only thought was to hide it - or get rid of it - so as not to face the amusement of albert on the morrow.
i picked the globe up. again, it seemed to have a slight hypnotic power, and i gazed into it.
suddenly i found myself inside it.
i felt no cold. snow was swirling all around me, so that i could only make out the outline of a few tall trees.
suddenly a figure emerged from the snow - a dignified gentleman no longer young, as the young lady had predicted.
he advanced toward me, and in a resonant voice, as if he were signaling the end of the world announced -
“jean cocteau is no judge of goat cheese!”
and i replied - “and leon bloy is no judge of white wine.”
“very good, very good.” the gentleman tramped through the snow toward me. as i came face to face with him i saw that he had a large nose, a neatly trimmed gray beard, and piercing blue eyes.
“do you recognize me, young man?” he asked.
i knew enough not to bluff in such circumstances, and i replied truthfully, “i am afraid i do not, sir.”
“i am anatole france, the greatest writer of my generation. do you not recognize me now?”
“i am only a humble fisherman and smuggler, sir.” i looked around. “at least, that is what i was before i found myself here.”
“indeed! “ he smiled in a friendly enough fashion. “ i should have said, i was the greatest writer of my generation, in the world we have left behind. here, i am only the humble servant and messenger of the king of the snows. ”
“in any case, sir,” i replied, “i am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“and i yours. i see you have learned your manners, at least. well - are you ready to attempt your three tasks? “