David L Bendix

Late one night in the American Bar in Singapore, I was sitting with Harley Pembrooke, the world-famous engineer, who is quite a card enthusiast. As we sipped our absinthe, I was holding forth more or less as follows: "We have heard of female chapeaugraphy artists and of women who performed illusions, manipulated coins, and the like, but why are there no female card performers?" Pembrooke smiled and said, "They may be rare, old man, but hardly nonexistent." He then proceeded to relate the following tale, which I have reproduced substantially as I remember it, sparing you the quotation marks and any other comments of my own:

There was one such of whom I can tell you. I met her in the tropics. It was on Agar-Agar, a little Dutch protectorate, where I had accepted a commission to span the treacherous rapids of the Kulabomba, or Water Which Goes So Quickly As To Cause Apprehension. There was a little European settlement which had grown up around the island's one harbor, and there I established a temporary office. The place could support only one night club, a disreputable little dive called the Montparnasse, which presented a tawdry cabaret consisting of a rather dispirited band, a pair of native dancers and the woman of whom I speak, Mireille Fleury—La Fleury, as we called her.

Mireille Fleury was French, of course, coming originally from Marseilles or some such place. She was, perhaps, thirty years old. Her checkered career had brought her somehow to Agar-Agar, where she had been abandoned by her protector. A handsome woman, Bendix, very handsome, with a flashing eye and a well-turned ankle. The man who abandoned her was a bloody fool! When she performed she used the professional name Tondalayo, and she did her act in a sarong, with flowers in her hair and at both bare ankles. Exquisite. You couldn't take your eyes off her. She did a magic act, stuff like card flourishes, sucker egg, Troublewit, but her real money came to her from the tables between the shows when she would come around and work close-up magic.

It was fascinating to watch her as she swayed sinuously up to a table carrying her props in a little raffia handbag, smiling brilliantly. "Would you like to see some of my poor little tricks?" "By all means,"the man of the table would say breathlessly, for by then her musky perfume would have taken him by the throat. She played to the men at the tables and when she had finished her performance, drooped her eye lashes and put on her brave little smile and said, "Sometimes people are so kind as to give me a little money. A woman alone..."The poor, hypnotized devils would drop a week's pay into the little raffia bag.

What sort of stuff did she do? Let me think a bit... Well, mostly cards. There was some gambling background there, I'm sure. The tricks she did were solid, but not brilliant—things like the Ambitious Card, Slow-Motion Aces, a few mental things, three card Monte, then a deck switch and into one of those story things with a set-up deck. She frequently used that old wheeze where a card is put into a glass of water and then vanishes. You know—the one where you use the card-shape piece of celluloid.

One of the most effective things she did, and a non-card item at that, was the torn and restored banknote. She would borrow a note, have someone write down the serial number, and then she would tear it up into bits. She would stand, gaze demurely at her spectators and insert the bits of the note into her decolletage. She would then wriggle deliciously and after a moment the restored bill would drop to the floor from beneath her skirt. While the bill was still warm, she would have the serial number verified.

Her presentation with card tricks varied strangely. Sometimes she would affect over-cute plots. One instance of this that I remember is her handling of the slow-motion ace assembly: Instead of using aces, she used the fours. She called the trick "Lassie Come Home," saying that the four pips on the cards represented the paw-prints of a collie. This sort of thing was hard to take. On the other hand, sometimes she would do some of the story-tricks, the ones about bellboys and hotel rooms, using really ribald patter. She would go into intricate detail about exactly what went on in the hotel rooms, so that the more squeamish of her audience frequently paid her to go away.

It was highly interesting to watch her card work, at once limited and enhanced as it was by her sex. Her tiny hands precluded palming, for example. On the credit side, her skirt permitted facile lapping. She cleverly obtained saliva in the act of languidly chewing her beads. Her long fingernails made it impossible for her to do the side steal, even if her right hand had been large enough to conceal a card. She had no pockets! Think of that! No pockets! It's enough to make a man shudder. But she made do quite handily, despite her limitations, because of the natural misdirective quality inherent in a beautiful woman. When she leaned over a table and did her Monte toss, every eye was on her cleavage.

Once our little club of card enthusiasts invited her to a session, a mistake which we never repeated. You see, she used her sex unfairly. If one of us saw through one of her tricks, she would sob uncontrollably. I remember old Briarton doing some baffling effect by Jordan, whereupon La Fleury begged him for the secret. When he refused, she shamelessly offered him her body. Briarton flushed red as a beet and said, "Madame, do you not see this plain golden band upon my finger?" Those were the days, eh? At the same unfortunate session some of the boys asked La Fleury where she had picked up her card techniques. She told us she had once been the mistress of Erdnase. Ah, what a controversy that started!

And so she flourished as a kind of illicit queen of that isolated place. When her popularity reached its highest point, she pulled off quite a coup by invading the sacred precincts of the gentlemen's bar at the Crossroads Hotel where no woman had been allowed for years. There she reigned as rather a cross between a courtesan and a busker. When she left the bar of an evening, her little raffia bag would jingle with golden eagles. Working at extremely close quarters in the bar as she did, the natural misdirection I have already mentioned became quite overpowering, and many tales are told of the apparent miracles she performed there. The most famous of these is the time she somehow managed to load a pound of butter under the French Consul's hat.

As one might expect, other women hated La Fleury with an unreasoning passion. And this is what lead indirectly to her end. A jealous wife denounced her to the local authorities. As a result, she lost her cabaret entertainer's license. She could never hang onto money and was forced to find some sort of work to earn passage money to somewhere or other. She was finally reduced to diving for coins thrown into the harbor from the rails of tourist steamers and there she died. A giant clam got her, poor little devil. (Here Pembrooke was silent for a long time.)

I can still see her in my mind's eye, leaning close to a masculine spectator, looking soulfully into his eyes and fluttering her lashes as she breathed, "The Queen of Hearts and the Jack of Hearts were having an affair. If the King had known, he would have killed them both!"

February 25, 1970

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