In the Eye of the Beholder: Part Two
Over the next few weeks, the Grundo diligently showed up every Monday with new stock and often some other product besides. Mademoiselle d’Embellir meant to refuse things such as hair gel bottle caps and finely-woven toothbrush bristles, as they were often more expensive than the cost of one whole bottle or an entire toothbrush – but the Grundo was always so charming and supportive of her cause, and often asked other customers’ opinions. They were so affirming that the red Usul felt compelled to accept.
She consoled herself that if she found she was losing more money than she was earning, she could always stop ordering them. As it was, things were... a little tight in the budget department. But beauty must prevail, she told herself. When one’s surroundings are no longer beautiful, life is no longer extraordinary. The last thing she wanted was an ordinary life.
Despite her monetary troubles, she was happy as she surveyed the peaceful milling of the customers in her shop. Since she had started stocking the new wares, large numbers of Grundos frequented her shop and regularly jumped at opportunities to tell her how marvellous her new stock was. They rarely bought anything, but their appreciation seemed to confirm that she had made the right decision.
The young white Uni had come back, too, which had made the Usul’s day.
Joyfully, the Uni held up the brown eyeshadow. “I can’t get over how pretty it is!” she said happily. “It’s all gold around the edges and it glitters in the sun.”
“Your eyes will glitter brighter than Kreludor on a clear night with this eyeshadow.” Mademoiselle d’Embellir beamed. “Who says a Neopian’s eyes can’t compete with the sky?”
“You ought to write a book, Fantine,” said one of her frequent customers and a lifelong friend, a Faerie Shoyru, “about your work. Everyone would queue up to buy it.”
“People who appreciate the beautification of Neopia as I do have no time to waste with books, Astrid,” the Usul said resolutely.
“There is just as much beauty in words on a page as there is on someone’s face,” Astrid argued. She glanced discerningly at the lipstick that the Uni now held. “Fantine, all your new packages look terribly extravagant. Are you sure you can afford it? You don’t seem to have raised your prices, yet you must have been spending a fortune on the new bottles and containers.”
“I will never raise prices,” Mademoiselle d’Embellir said firmly. “My shop must be accessible to the poorest in Neopia.”
The Shoyru shook her head in amusement. “You’re too kind for your own good, Fantine.”
“I was not very kind to my parents,” the Usul said mischievously. “They have never forgiven me for not becoming a dentist.”
“And it’s a good thing you didn’t, too,” Astrid said. “What a waste that would have been. Dentists – ha!”
“I have every respect for dentists,” Mademoiselle d’Embellir said charmingly. “Teeth are very important. If only dentists advocated wearing lipsticks we should all get along splendidly.”
“Mademoiselle?” Her delivery Grundo had entered her shop. Mademoiselle d’Embellir had begun to feel ill every time Monday came around, and she had to pinch herself to stop herself from fainting.
“Monsieur! How nice to see you,” she said weakly. “But it is Wednesday today. We had agreed you would stop by on Mondays.”
The Grundo smiled enigmatically. “Perhaps we should meet twice a week,” he said, “for your own convenience. Besides, I thought you could not wait to see what I have for you: a variety of soap shapes.” He produced a purple bar of soap in the shape of the Faerie Queen. “Lovely, is it not?”
The Usul inspected it. “It is pretty,” she said hesitantly. “How much?”
“It may be a lot more than regular soaps,” the Grundo said smoothly, “but I assure you it is worth every Neopoint.”
“May I see?” Astrid demanded. She took the soap out of Mademoiselle d’Embellir’s hands, inspecting it. She shook her head. “It does not smell nearly as good as your regular soaps. Besides, it will lose its shape as it is used. The shape is a pointless extravagance.”
“You are right, Astrid,” said the Usul with relief. “It does not smell as good. No thank you, monsieur.”
The Grundo’s eyes narrowed. “I never knew a sense of smell was so important to you, mademoiselle. I wonder you do not make all your products smell nice. Besides, is beauty ever a pointless extravagance? Does that not defy your entire work’s purpose?”
Again the Usul hesitated. “Perhaps,” she said feebly.
The Shoyru was shaking her head. “You don’t buy soap to look at it,” she said. “You buy it to smell nice.” She wrinkled her nose at the Grundo. “You could use some.”
The Grundo gazed back at her stonily. “Excuse me,” he said coldly. “But you have no right to offer your opinion in this business. I was under the impression that this shop belonged to Mademoiselle d’Embellir, not an unfashionable Shoyru with poorly-applied nail varnish.”
“I beg your pardon –” Astrid began furiously but Mademoiselle d’Embellir interrupted her.
“It is quite all right,” she said tightly. “You are very kind, monsieur, but I think I must refuse this time. In future, perhaps it would be better if we continued to meet only once a fortnight. After all, I have chosen all my new bottles and containers, so there is no need to show me anything new.”
The Grundo looked outraged. “But mademoiselle, you disgust me. Do you honestly believe that the pursuit for excellence can ever end? Do you not see that one must always strive for improvement? If you are happy to stop one step before perfection, why should I bother coming again at all? Perhaps I ought to let you return to putting your masterpieces in those old, ugly, uncouth bottles that once disgraced your life’s work, if you tell me you no longer want to continue looking for new ways to improve how the world looks.”
Astrid made a noise of disgust and pushed past him through the door.
Mademoiselle d’Embellir felt her heart pulsate as she said weakly, “I’ll take three hundred.”
The Grundo reverted to his familiar accommodating self and said politely, “Whatever you say, mademoiselle. I remain your humble servant.” He placed the box behind her counter while she emptied the till. Her hand shook a little as she began displaying the overpriced soap bars on her gleaming shelves.
“How beautiful!” chirped three blue Grundos who had appeared out of nowhere. “What a good decision that was!”
Mademoiselle d’Embellir tried to smile, but her head felt clammy and when she mentally calculated how much was left in the till, her throat seized up briefly.
Five days later later the Usul woke up early. She had a headache and as she opened up the till so she could go to the Pharmacy and buy medicine she saw that it was empty.
“Of course,” she whispered hoarsely. “I had to pay him for new hairbrushes.” She remembered that she owed the Food Shop three thousand Neopoints for outstanding food bills and she wondered desperately how she was going to ever get the money.
To escape her woes, she opened up the gossip page in her Neopian Times.
She fainted in shock.
When she came round, she stared in terror at her own caricature splashed across the front page. She was depicted with lines setting in, huge dark circles, lopsided lipstick, unplucked brows and not a smidge of eyeshadow on her normally perfectly manicured eyes. “HAS NEOPIA’S BIGGEST BEAUTY QUEEN LET HERSELF GO?”
Feeling nauseous, she gazed at her own reflection in the nearest looking-glass. Mademoiselle d’Embellir could not recognise the tired, worn Usul in her reflection.
She had been too stressed and panicked to use a smidge of makeup, and she had reverted to a cheap nasty brand of shampoo that she herself would never stock, because she could no longer afford to spend money on her own beauty care.
“I can’t go on,” she whispered hoarsely. “I can’t go on.”
She hid behind her makeup counter, leaning her head against a shelf of perfume, and closed her eyes. Before the sun had risen completely, she took her last remaining surplus from her till and fled.
That day, customers arrived ready as usual to purchase her new and wonderful creations – but they were greeted by closed curtains and a sign on the door saying, ‘OUT OF BUSINESS’. The much-loved mademoiselle was nowhere in sight.
There was instant uproar. The Neopian Times exploded with letters written in demanding to know the story behind the mademoiselle’s decision to close her business, and where she could possibly have gone. There were no signs of life coming out of the old location of her store – but then, as many said, Mademoiselle d’Embellir had changed so much in the past months that even if they saw her they might not recognise her.
Astrid the Faerie Shoyru alone knew of her whereabouts. Mademoiselle Fantine d’Embellir was living in Astrid’s spare bedroom, but she now only answered to Flossie and she could not bear the sight of lipstick.
“I was so stupid,” Flossie whimpered. “I was so stupid. Oh, Astrid, I let myself down and I let you down and I let my parents down. I was no good at what I did. I should have become a dentist.”
“Nonsense,” the Faerie Shoyru said. “You’ll be a dentist when I’m a pink Mynci.”
“But what do I do now?” the red Usul implored her friend to tell her. “I’m too ashamed to ever go by my old name. Beauty was all I ever knew. I want my old pretty shop back and I want my old bottles back, but I could never get the funds to get my parlour up and running again.”
“Don’t you worry,” Astrid reassured the broken Usul as she sat a steaming cup of Strawberry Spice Tea in front of her. “You just concentrate on getting your old confidence back. You’re not Fantine or Mademoiselle d’Embellir anymore: you’re Flossie, the red Usul, living with Astrid, the Faerie Shoyru – and you’re a dear, dear friend and we love you so.”
“Oh, Astrid,” sobbed Flossie, clutching at the cup. “I wish I’d never been pulled in by such a stupid scam. Soaps shaped like Fyora – I bet Fyora herself would be disgusted at how despicably rancid those soaps smelled. Astrid –what’s going to happen to Neopia now that I’m not here? Who’s going to supply them with soap? What are the Beauty Contest entrants going to do?”
“There are other beauty parlours in Neopia, though none as good as yours had been,” Astrid reassured the neurotic Flossie. “I expect Slothum Beauty Care is the frontrunner now.”
“No!” cried Flossie. “Slothum is overpriced and they know nothing about blush! I tried it when I was six and even then I could tell the texture was completely wrong for the sensitive skin of the face. It belonged on someone’s feet better than on one’s cheeks. I don’t know who owns that parlour, but they deserve to be locked up! What will happen to Neopia, Astrid?”
“Flossie!” the Usul shrieked.
“Flossie,” said the long-suffering Shoyru. “The way I see it, you started from nothing before. You probably had less when you were eighteen and first opened up than you do now. What’s stopping you from starting again, at the bottom?”
“I’m old and ugly,” Flossie said miserably. “No one would be convinced.”
“Snap out of it,” Astrid said impatiently. “You’re behaving stupidly. There’s no such thing as old or ugly. You know as well as I do that someone’s true beauty lies within – but you made it your life’s work to make the outside look as pretty as the inside. It’s not a matter of being old or ugly.”
“I’m too tired to go on,” Flossie said sadly.
“I do have an idea,” said Astrid, “and with all the publicity surrounding you it’d probably work quite well.”
“What?” demanded Flossie.
“No, it’s stupid,” Astrid said airily. “You’d hate it. I suggested it before, and you said it was silly.”
“What is it?” said Flossie.
“No, I really don’t think you want to hear it, Fantine –”
“Please tell me, Astrid,” Flossie said, opening her eyes wide pathetically.
Astrid noticed that the Usul didn’t correct her name. “If you insist –”
Dr. Sloth was in a bad mood.
So, nothing much out of the ordinary.
However there was slightly more nothing much out of the ordinary than usual. Despite the fact that Mademoiselle d’Embellir’s beauty parlour had been out of business for three months now, the minuscule figures that Slothum Beauty Care was bringing in were making him feel very large and hot and cross. He had imagined riches beyond imagination; Neopia-wide fame; and the sight of Mademoiselle d’Embellir writhing in pain under the weight of his stout black boot.
“Mwahaha,” he said with little of his typical gusto. The reality was that he had started off with more money pre-evil plan; he’d neglected to consider the damage Slothum Beauty Care would do for his image, so there was no way he was taking credit for it now – and the dejected Usul had taken off somewhere and he’d no idea what she was doing. She had been keeping an extremely low profile. Everything was completely wretched.
His faithful Grundo slunk in again self-consciously. “I found your book, sire,” he said weakly, holding up ‘Mr. Cybunny Has a Holiday’. “And the Neopian Times just published a review of Slothum that gave it a four out of ten. So that’s an improvement.”
Dr. Sloth shrieked in rage. “Abandon the whole thing!” he roared. “I care not for this stupid beauty parlour. We’ll go onto plan B of the Quest for Mega Riches. What’s plan B?”
The Grundo nearly said, ‘There wasn’t one’, before remembering he was talking to, and then said quickly, “Let’s try sending the, uh – Breadmaster – out of business. You’d make a fortune if there was no Breadmaster, because they’d be queuing up at, uh, your bakery – the Breadsloth – to buy bread. You’d never stop making profits because everyone needs to eat, right?”
“I don’t!” yelled Dr. Sloth. “I never eat. I trained myself not to.”
Dr. Sloth was at this moment holding a Raspberry Scorchio Cookie, but the Grundo chose not to press the point.
“Everyone else needs to eat, though, stupid creatures,” Dr. Sloth shouted. “So we’ll try sending the Breadmaster broke instead. Why am I the only one who ever has any good ideas?”
“A mark of your true genius, sire,” said the Grundo.
“Admirable observation,” said Dr. Sloth, “even if you are groveling like a Slorg.”
A new book appeared in the Book Shop one day.
Almost instantly, it began attracting a lot of interest. Customers stared, whispering, at the small display of books. Then they stood, whispering, at the paying counter, and continue to whisper as they wandered out into the street to look at Mademoiselle d’Embellir’s beauty parlour which had been closed for the last three months.
The intriguing hardback was entitled: ‘Fantine d’Embellir: or How I Learned to Stop Bottling and Love the Blush’. Categorised as a memoir, it was a combination of the history of Mademoiselle d’Embellir’s beauty parlour, whimsical stories about her parents (“For my sixth birthday, my lovely mother gave me my very first packet of dental floss”), her best and favourite makeup tricks, and her philosophies on life, beauty and product packaging.
The book was not only purchased by beauty devotees, but by almost everyone who had known of Mademoiselle d’Embellir. Residents of Neopia Central were still curious as to where the much-loved mademoiselle had disappeared to. Though the writer made a few references to ‘the mysterious illness which consumed me in the form of pretty painted bottles and gold-painted compacts’ and hinted that that was the reason for her decision to close, she remained gallingly vague.
Nevertheless, the volumes sold out rapidly and the book stores in Kreludor, Faerieland and even the scholarly Brightvale began stocking ‘Fantine d’Embellir: or How I Learned to Stop Bottling and Love the Blush’. The reviewer at the Neopian Times concluded that wherever Fantine d’Embellir was now, she must certainly be benefiting from the extraordinary success of her amusing memoir.
“It was such a good idea, Astrid.” The Usul beamed at her friend. “I was so silly never to consider it before.”
“Yes, Flossie, you were very silly,” said Astrid.
“Fantine, if you please,” said Mademoiselle d’Embellir wistfully. “I know Flossie is my real name, but Fantine seems to fit me better – like an old tube of lipstick that has gradually moulded to the shape of one’s lips, so Fantine is to me. But Astrid, chérie, when I have my pretty shop back, you must never let me forget the depths of despair I wallowed in while I have lived in your spare bedroom. Otherwise I shall fail again, this time more miserably.”
“I’ll call you Fantine on the condition that you promise to come straight to me if you ever get accosted by suspicious product packagers again,” said Astrid sternly.
“Oh, I am older and wiser now,” Mademoiselle d’Embellir promised her. “I know now that it matters not so much what the outside of the bottle looks like, but what’s in it. Certainly it is nice for the exterior to look pretty, but it is nothing if the inside cannot match up.”
Astrid was giggling as she read the Usul’s book.
“You can’t tell me you actually used the dental floss to fix your hairbrush and your mother fainted when you did so,” said Astrid. “You’re an unabashed liar, Fantine.”
“I played a little with the truth,” said Mademoiselle d’Embellir charmingly. “But you know, I have built my life’s work on my ability to adjust something just enough to make it prettier, without being so obvious that it lessens the impact. So in beautifying the truth I have indeed stayed true to myself. You agree, don’t you, Astrid?”
“Oh, get on with you,” said Astrid.