Back in the early 1800's, I was hanging out in Paris with Henri Descremps. He wanted me to publish a collection of his occasional contributions to Armageddon, so I was visiting to give him a helping hand. It was going to be called "Supplément à la Supplément à la Magie blanche dévoilée", which is a pretty snappy title, I think you'll agree! However, it never came to fruition, for one reason or another. So I was kicking my heels in the city of romance, looking for amusement, when I received a surprising invitation....
Well, technically speaking the invitation was addressed to Henri, but as he was out having the axle mended on his barouche, I figured he wouldn't mind my taking a peek. Here's a translation of what it said,
"My Dear Descremps,
It has come to Our attention that you are currently accommodating a curiosity from the Americas. It would be Our pleasure to receive him, in your company, at Versailles. It has been weeks since We have invaded any country of significance, so even the slimmest possibility of amusement must be seized upon. Make sure the American is house trained, and that he fully understands the etiquette due to Our royal personage.
The Emperor Napoleon.
ps Josephine sends hugs and asks, 'Can you please bring the cups and balls?'
pps Could you also bring The Magic Coloring Book, as that is my absolute favorite."
Well, I've been called many things by many people, but never a "curiosity"!!! I don't mind telling you that my goat was well and truly gander for the goose, and it was all Henri could do to calm me down on the way to our audience with The Emperor, a few days later.
"Listen Barry," he hissed, "The Emperor is a touchy fellow, he is easily offended. So please, if you value your life, you must treat him with solemnity and respect at all times."
"Henri baby," I replied, "I've entertained more of the crowned heads in Europe than you've had warm croissants. I know how to behave around these guys, you just have to trust me on that."
"But that's what worries me, Barry," he muttered. I was at the ready, with a suitably cutting riposte, but just then we arrived at the gates of Versailles.
It isn't often that I'm lost for words, but the sight of them took my breath away. The chateau was okay, and the gardens were kind of fancy (if you like that sort of thing), but the gates were spectacular. I'll never forget those gates until the day I die.
"Is it not magnificent, my dear Barry?" whispered Henri, his face pale with awe.
"It is, Henri, it is! What a pair of gates!!!!" I said, hoarse with amazement. Henri looked at me quizzically before replying.
"It is as The Emperor said. A curiosity. Bof!"
Well now, any pleasant thoughts I had of French grandeur and majesty vanished with the repetition of that godforsaken word. But still, I maintained my composure, my voice hardly rising above a murmur as we disembarked from the carriage.
"YOU GODDAM PATRONISING FROGGY BASTARD," I demurred, "A FREAKING CURIOSITY AM I? YOU ASSHOLE!" Although it was a struggle, I moderated my language, being careful not to appear aggressive or threatening, "AND WE CAN SETTLE THIS ANY WAY YOU WANT, YOU CHEESE-BRAINED TURD WRANGLER! SWORDS, PISTOLS, OR THE GOOD OLD FASHIONED AMERICAN WAY!!!"
"And what, pray tell, might that be?" asked Henri, reddening as he waxed his moustache.
"KNIVES AND BROKEN BOTTLES, YOU PREENING NANCY BOY!!!" I informed him, with considerable restraint, as I broke off the neck of a nearby bottle of Constantia and pulled out my color changing bowie knife.
"Have a care, Barry, have a care," spoke Henri, as he gestured over my shoulder.
"I'M NOT FALLING FOR THAT ONE, YOU GARLIC RIDDEN MONKEY BOY, JUST WAIT TIL I...." but at that moment I realised Henri hadn't been bluffing. Two huge guards in bearskins grabbed hold of my arms, forcing me to the floor. Then a man walked in front of me, and taking hold of my chin, he forced my head up so that our eyes met.
"Ah so, this is the curiosity," I had to bite my tongue, folks, "He is very noisy, no? Well, maybe we will have some sport from him, at any rate. You have brought The Magic Coloring Book, Descremps? Excellent! Now, come along!"
And with that, I was dragged behind him, along seemingly endless corridors, until we arrived at a beautifully furnished room. A fire burned merrily in the grate, small tables displayed elegant clocks and delightful trinkets, collected from the four corners of the earth. The walls were hung with sumptuous tapestries and oil paintings, each of inestimable value. But the thing that really caught my eye was the brass coal scuttle. Never will I forget that coal scuttle, not until the day I die!
Four chairs were positioned round a table, and in one of them sat Josephine. She was instantly attracted to me, as powerful women often are. (I could tell this by the way she pointedly ignored me throughout my visit, always a sure sign that you've been noticed!)
She pretended to be delighted over Henri's second rate Cups & Balls routine. His final loads consisted of three perfectly balanced gold filigree eggs, encrusted with precious jewels, each larger than the one before. I could only laugh, as I always insisted on fresh eggs for my own routine.
Next, Henri did The Magic Coloring Book for Napoleon. He had to do it a good few times, as every time he finished, Bonaparte clapped his hands and said, "Again, Again!!" jumping up and down on his little chicken feet.
Finally, he turned to me, and ignoring my borrowed deck, he brought out the craziest set of Checkers I ever did see.
The front row of each side looked similar to each other, and yet anything but a flat, circular disk. The back row were shaped variously: on horseback, ecclesiastically, architecturally and regally (of both genders!).
"You have insulted my magician," said Boney, "And you have insulted my personage. In short, you have insulted France by your buffoonery!"
"Well, I BEG YOUR PARDON LORD SHORT STOP," said I. But as the guards drew their sabres, I considered that it was time to reach for a new level of diplomacy. "Lord But A Short Stop To Ultimate Greatness, was what I meant. That is, how may I help your most holy highness?" I quickly corrected myself.
"I will tell you, Barry Solayme. You will please to play the," he gestured at the checkers board and made French noises, "at the, how you say, Les échecs?"
"Sure, sure, lays checkers," said I, "Let's play, Boney baby."
And boy did I play!
The guy knew nothing about checkers! He couldn't even move the counters the right way!! He kept jumping 'em round, and going diagonal, then straight. The first few moves I made, he got so agitated he nearly had me killed by the bearskin boys. I tell ya, it was only when I'd doubled, and spiked my horsey counter through the princess counter, that he started to realise my preeminence at checkers.
"Fou," he kept saying, "Fou, fou, fou!!!" Well, folks, that's French for 'phooey', because Boney just couldn't bear to be beat by the American CURIOSITY!! I sure turned the tables on that guy.
"Tell me, Barry", said The Emperor, "Tell me what should I make as my next conquest? Which of the fat countries should I set my Corsican nose against?"
"Well," I replied, "Whatever you do, don't make it Russia, highness. The winters are bitter, and you'll struggle to maintain your grip within the vastness of a huge nation." He laughed, obviously agreeing with me, "And if you were to make that cardinal blunder, highness," Boney guffawed, "Your nation will fail at war for the next two hundred years."
Boney blanched, then spluttered like a landed pike, "And you? You blundering, gauche imbecile! What will you be calling me? Eh, poutain?"
As I flicked a crumb off my sleeve, I rejoined, "A cheese eating surrender monkey, your mightiness."