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Rex Stout

Before Midnight

Chapter 1

Not that our small talk that Tuesday evening in April had any important bearing on the matter, but it will do for an overture, and it will help to explain a couple of reactions Nero Wolfe had later. After a dinner that was featured by one of Fritz's best dishes, squabs with sausage and sauerkraut, in the dining room of the old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street, I followed Wolfe across the hall to the office, and, as he got some magazines from the table near the big globe and went to his chair behind his desk, asked if there were any chores. That was insurance. I had notified him that I intended to take Thursday afternoon off for the opening of the baseball season at the Polo Grounds, and when Thursday came I didn't want any beefing about my letting things pile up.

He said no, no chores, got all his vast bulk adjusted in the chair, the only chair on earth he approved of, and opened a magazine. He allotted around twenty minutes a week for looking at advertisements. I went to my desk, sat, and reached for the phone, then changed my mind, deciding a little more insurance wouldn't hurt. Swiveling and seeing that he was scowling at the open magazine, I got up and circled around near enough to see what he was focused on. It was a full-page ad, black and white, that I and many millions of my fellow citizens knew by heart- though it didn't require much study, since there were only six words in it, not counting repetitions. At the center near the top was a distinguished-looking small bottle, labeled in fancy script Pour Amour, with the Amour beneath the Pour. Right below it were two more of the same, also centered, and below them three more, and then four more, and so on down the page. At the bottom seven bottles stretched clear across, making the base of a twenty-eight bottle pyramid. In the space at the top left was the statement:

Pour Amour

means

For Love

and at top right it said:

Pour Amour

is

For Love

'There are two things about that ad,' I said.

Wolfe grunted and turned a page.

'One thing,' I said, 'is the name itself. To sixty-four and seven-tenths per cent of the women seeing it, it will suggest 'paramour,' and the percentage would be higher if more of them knew what a paramour is. I won't decry American womanhood. Some of my best friends are women. Very few of them want to be or have paramours, so you couldn't come right out and name a perfume that. Put it this way. They see the ad, and they think, So they have the nerve to suggest their snazzy old perfume will get me a paramour! Ill show 'em! What do they think I am? Half an ounce, ten bucks. The other thing-'

'One's enough,' he growled.

'Yes, sir. The second thing, so many bottles. That's against the rules. The big idea in a perfume ad is to show only one bottle, to give the impression that it's a scarce article and you'd better hurry up and get yours. Not Pour Amour. They say, Come on, we've got plenty and it's a free country and every woman has a right to a paramour, and if you don't want one prove it. It's an entirely new approach, one hundred per cent American, and it seems to be paying off, it and the contest together.'

I had expected to get the desired results by that time, but all he did was sit and turn pages. I took a breath.

'The contest, as you probably know since you look at ads some, is a pip. A million dollars in cash prizes. Each week for nearly five months they have furnished a description of a woman--I might as well give you the exact specifications, since you've been training my memory for years --'a woman recorded in non-fictional history in any of its forms, including biography, as having used cosmetics.' Twenty of them in twenty weeks. This was the description of Number One:

'Though Caesar fought to give me power

And I had Antony in my grasp,

My bosom, in the fatal hour,

Welcomed the fatal asp.

'Of course that was pie. Cleopatra. Number Two was just as easy:

'Married to one named Aragon,

I listened to Columbus' tales,

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