The woman turned to The Body Beautiful and kept repeating. "On veut la soupe! On veut la soupe!"
"What means 'On veut la soupe?' " I whispered to Cooke.
"She wants her soup," he explained.
Not that all the entertainment at Pousada de S�o Jo�o Baptista was provided by the French. A Swiss woman, rumored to be some sort of countess, arrived with her husband and a bagful of table scraps which she had carried in from Zurich to feed to the Portuguese dogs. "It's a cruel country," she said to me, her green eyes focused a foot above and beyond my head. "They abandon dogs on the beaches here." Each day as her husband fished she assembled the various dogs of the castle about her and fed them Swiss table scraps, which went over big with all the dogs except Etienne. The countess made a favorite of one of the castle's mutts, picking him up and squeezing him so hard that he would yelp to be liberated. "What is she trying to teach him?" Parreira asked me.
"She's trying to teach him to bite her," I said, just as the dog snapped at her hand.
"What a good teacher she is!" Parreira said.
Each night when the catch was unloaded, the Swiss lady would stand around wringing her hands. "Oh, those poor things!" she said. "They're dead!"
"We've all got to go sometime, my dear," her husband said one night, striking a new low in banality, even for a Swiss, and to the woman's eternal credit she did not agree with him. I wonder about the "countess" even now. She had that faraway look in her eye; she enjoyed posturing about the castle courtyard, drying her waist-length hair, and she always seemed to have something wrong with her brassiere. This is not my own conclusion but one based on an overheard conversation between two Frenchwomen while fishing one day. They seemed alternately angry and puzzled by the Swiss woman's brassiere; I could not gather whether they thought it was too tight or too loose or what, but certainly it was not the sort of brassiere that a Parisian gentlewoman would wear, one could be sure of that, certainement! There was also some prolonged discussion about the lady's nationality and accent and aristocratic standing, if any. "Well!" said one of the women. "I'm sure you know: a Swiss passport means nothing, absolutely nothing!" An Englishman nudged me, pointed to the two fishwives, and said, "Crackers!"
This Englishman was no bargain himself, if you want to know the truth. He arrived unheralded one morning, looking exactly like James Joyce in some of those old pictures in Trieste: short tie Happing out the front of his jacket, steel-rimmed glasses, sandals on his feet and a bemused smile playing about the corner of his mouth, as though he had something on everyone of us. He spent most of his time hiking around the parapets with a jaunty step like those old folks who stride briskly past one's window on cruise ships, doing the mile-a-day that the doctor prescribed to ward off ultimate justice. When I asked him what he did for a living (a typical American question), he put me in my place properly. "I'm a spy," he said. The next day he loosened up a bit and confided to me, "I'm beginning to feel these bloody prison walls pressing in on me." The following day he announced, in that public-school accent of his that made every word sound like a Sacheverell Sitwell production: "I do prefer Madeira, r'ally I do. It's a ravishing island, not like this at all." Then, lowering his voice, he told me that he was frankly annoyed with all the Frenchmen in the pousada. "It's that bloody language of theirs," he said. "They can be saying the most puerile things, and they sound intelligent. The poor Portuguese can be saying the most intelligent things, and they sound puerile. Ever so unfair, wouldn't you say, old fellow?"
There was, for a fact so much of this Ship of Fools byplay going on all around us that Cooke and I were hard pressed to go about our appointed task, which was to learn about the fishing on the island. For my own part, I was also slow to get started because of stark terror. The Portuguese fisherman does not curry the favor of the sea; he attacks it. In all kinds of weather the boats of the pousada put out, dragging faithful dories behind. The prospect of being cut loose from the mother boat in heavy water out of sight of land, and smack in the middle of the shipping lanes, and with a boxer dog lapping at my eyes, did not appeal to my basically gentle nature. I felt at one with the Englishman who had staggered to the dock at dawn, dressed to the ears in the latest angling togs from Harrods, clambered on board the crowded boat and then scuttled back to the shore. "What are you doing?" Parreira asked.