A rare beauty

When I first saw her on this busy street corner of Paris I felt a twinge of pity for her, as one might feel for a rag doll left out in the rain.

Her puckered little face was contained in a skin resembling dough you roll out for a piecrust, her nose a mere bump, her button eyes aberrant to a degree that made me realize later she could have been watching us for some time without my sensing it. A misfit, a cipher, a poor old thing.

Yet she not only battled for us against the formidable institution of the Parisian cabdriver; she also virtually commandeered a bus for our party, and proudly pushed away my handful of money that was hers for the taking. I had some cheek, pitying this one.

The four of us had come up from the Seine and a short sightseeing cruise aboard a bateau mouche, one of the ''fly boats'' that swarm the river. It was late afternoon. We had skipped lunch, and all we talked about when we reached the top of the embankment steps was the shortest route to a restaurant.

One of the wives remembered a little place near Notre Dame from a previous visit. We had glimpsed the cathedral moments before on our cruise, so we agreed the restaurant must be nearby.

As we walked we grew steamy from the sun of early June. Notre Dame seemed as remote as Sioux City. We tried flagging down the taxis that zipped past in both directions, but only one driver even looked at us. He put his finger to his temple and twirled it, which we translated readily.

In the doorway of what appeared to be an armory stood a splendidly turned out army officer, hands on hips, surveying us as if we were an enemy patrol. At my approach, however, he snapped off a salute worthy of every French Foreign Legionnaire in Hollywood. I was encouraged to try ''taxi.'' He smiled and pointed down the street. ''Beaucoup taxis!''

What he really meant was a telephone for calling taxis. We found it on a hectic corner two blocks down, and we all took turns jiggling the hook and shouting into the mouthpiece and waving wildly at every cab in sight.

One did drive up and stop. We scrambled for it, ready to pile in, but the driver jumped out and blocked the door, his manner as bristling as the bluish stubble on his heavy jowls. We backed off, cowed by the unknown and his Gallic harangue.

It was then I saw the woman. She came toward us and the cab, and at first I thought she was going to claim it. But she was on the attack. From her crooked little mouth with the two front teeth twisted awry there issued a shrill tirade aimed at the driver. We were stupefied.

In her long black skirt, her faded blue blouse, and wearing a queer bonnet-like headgear that reached almost to her thin shoulders she seemed to me a housekeeper or a laundress who had wandered out of Eugenie Grandet; and here she was on this busy corner of La Capitale, untold miles and some 150 years out of her way - Mme. l'Inconnue, Mrs. What's-Her-Name. And she was blazing.

She thrust herself like a blocking back of the Podunk Flimsies between our group and the cabdriver, and the two of them jabbered and counterjabbered in a verbal storm that made the warm air fairly crackle.

The driver finally broke off the exchange and spoke to me in English that was at least as intelligible as his counterpart's in New York. No four, yes three, he said. Another come now. Do we want two cab?

I looked at Mme. l'Inconnue, still breathing hard from her assault in behalf of the common people. I would have given my ticket home for a hamburger and a vanilla shake, but who for the sake of his stomach could display such disdain for our champion's efforts? I told the driver no. Away they went, motors and drivers alike snarling.

Mme. l'Inconnue came over to me, her eyes wandering, her face disturbed and inquiring. Notre Dame, I told her. She pointed to a bus at the curb and scurried to it, putting her foot on the step and blocking the door just as it was closing.

From the handful of coins I took from my pocket and thrust at her she picked out several, closed my fist on the rest, and put the selected coins in my free hand.

She was sovereign, reigning over this moment, like Liberte at the barricades. A glow, as if radiating fulfillment, suffused her clayey features. If she heard the grumbling of the bus driver and the passengers, she gave no sign.

Motioning us up the steps, she told the driver where to let us off, gestured to me to put the coins in the fare box, and did not back away until she saw us take our seats.

As the bus rumbled ahead, I looked back. Because of the traffic and the crowd on the corner I could not see her, but my heart found her. It was my turn to salute: Mme. l'Inconnue, she whom I had considered a pitiful and insignificant splinter of humanity only moments before, the most beautiful woman in Paris.

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