PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Now then, look at me properly. You've got nice eyes, I like the colour. What are you called?'
'And from the South, it's in your voice... Age...?'
'Well, that's something.'These scraps of conversation, barely intelligible amid the music, shouts and laughter of a fancy-dress party, were exchanged, one night in June, between a bagpiper from the Italian mountains and an Egyptian peasant woman, in the glazed plant-house - palms, tree-ferns - that formed one end of the studio of Déchelette.
The pointed questions of the Egyptian were answered by the bagpiper with the simple directness of his tender years, and with all the relief of a Southerner who has remained silent for too long. A stranger in this crowd of painters and sculptors, he had been brought here by a friend but lost contact with him the instant they crossed the threshold. For two hours, fretful and ill at ease, he had edged round the room, never suspecting how his golden sun-tanned face, his short fair hair, in curls as tight as the sheepskin of his costume, had been winning looks and whispers on all sides.Dancers’ shoulders jostled him roughly, artistic types made jokes about his bagpipes, carried all askew, and his mountaineer's get-up, heavy and cumbersome on this summer's night. A Japanese woman with street-wise eyes, her hair piled up and pinned in place with steel blades, irritated him by humming: 'Oh, the pretty post-boy, ain't he sweet?' And a Spanish bride in white silk lace, passing by on the arm of an Apache chief, violently thrust under his nostrils her bouquet of white jasmine.
He could make nothing of these advances. He believed himself the object of extreme ridicule and took refuge in the cool shadows of the conservatory, where a large divan ran along one wall beneath the greenery. Suddenly this woman had come and sat down next to him.Young? Beautiful? He couldn’t have said. From the long sheath of blue wool encasing a full, supple figure, emerged two finely rounded and sculpted arms, bare to the shoulder; and the small hands glinting with rings, the wide-open grey eyes, seeming all the larger for the strange metal ornaments at her brow, made a most harmonious composition.
An actress, probably. Lots of actresses went to Déchelette's. The thought made him still more uneasy; persons of that sort frightened him greatly. She had seated herself very close to him to speak, balancing her elbow on one knee and resting her head on her hand, her voice gentle, serious, a little weary 'You’re from the South, really...? With a blond head like that...! Isn’t that extraordinary!'And she wanted to know how long he had been living in Paris, if it was difficult, this exam he was working towards for the consular service, if he knew many people and how he came to be at Dechelette’s fancy-dress ball in rue de Rome, so far from his Latin Quarter.
When he mentioned the name of the student who had brought him - La Gournerie... related to the writer... she knew of him no doubt - the expression on this woman's face changed, suddenly darkened; but he took no notice, being at an age when the eyes shine bright and see nothing. La Gournerie had promised his cousin would be here, that he'd introduce him. 'I really love his poems... It would be marvellous to meet him...'
She met his guilelessness with a smile of pity, a graceful straightening of the shoulders;parting, at the same time, the frail leaves of a bamboo to look into the room and see if she could pick out his great man.
The party was just then at its most dazzling, a swirling fairy-tale of enchantment. The studio, or dance hall, for it hardly ever served as a workroom, spanned the full height of the building in one vast space. Over a décor of lacy hangings, pale and summery, of blinds in gauze or finely-woven straw, of lacquered screens, of stained glass panels, and over the yellow rose bush standing in a tall renaissance fireplace, there played the varied and bizarre lights of Chinese, Persian, Moorish and Japanese lanterns, some of iron with openwork arches like a mosque doorway, others of coloured paper in the shapes of fruits, of flowers spread like fans, or cut in the outline of birds or of serpents. And then sudden beams of electric light would launch darting blue shafts over the throng, turning a thousand lanterns pale and frosting with moonlight all the faces and the bare shoulders. They cast their icy brilliance over the whole phantasmagoria of materials, feathers, sequins, ribbons crammed together in the dancing mass and spilling up the staircase with its broad balustrade that led to the upper gallery; they picked out in silhouette above the throng the necks of the double basses and the fevered baton of the conductor.
From his place the young man could see all this, watching through a screen of green branches and flowering lianas that became part of the décor, framed it and, by optical illusion, cast garlands over the whirling dancers, a swag of wisteria setting off the silvered train of a princess, dragon-tree foliage wreathing the little face of a Pompadour shepherdess. And his pleasure in the fascinating spectacle was doubled when his Egyptian woman told him the names of the people, all famous, all glorious, hidden under such amusing, fantastical disguises.That kennel-boy, his short whip slung on his back, was Jadin; whilst a little further off that country priest in his threadbare soutane was old Isabey, taller than usual thanks to the deck of cards stuffed into each shoe; Grandpa Corot was smiling beneath the huge peak of an army veteran’s cap. And she pointed out for him Thomas Couture as a bulldog, Jundt as an officer of the law, Cham as an exotic bird.
And here and there, some serious historical costumes, worn by noticeably younger painters – a plumed Murat, a Prince Eugène, a Charles the First – showed the clear distinction between the artists of two generations: the newcomers, hard-headed, cold, with expressions like stockbrokers prematurely lined by preoccupation with money, the others much more boyish, laughing, noisy, unfettered.
Notwithstanding his fifty-five years and his academic laurels, the sculptor Caoudal, dressed as a comic hussar, his bare arms revealing Herculean biceps, a painter’s palette swinging against his long legs in place of a sabretache, was executing a solo quadrille like a refugee from the old Montparnasse dance-halls while opposite him the composer de Potter, as a muezzin on his night off, turban slipping sideways, was attempting a belly dance and shrieking ‘la Allah, il Allah!’ in a series of piercing screeches.
Round the joyful performers stood a large circle of resting dancers, and in their first rank, Déchelette, master of the house, screwed up his little eyes under a tall Persian head-piece, wrinkled his Kalmuck nose, frowned in his greying beard, pleased at his guests’ pleasure, enjoying himself enormously and allowing no trace of it to show.
Déchelette, an engineer, a figure in Parisian artistic circles from some ten or a dozen years before, a good man, very rich, a supporter of the arts, was known for the free and easy ways, the scorn for others’ opinions which result from a life spent in long voyages overseas and in confirmed bachelorhood. At this time he was building a railway from Tauris to Teheran, and every year, to recover from ten months of fatigues, of nights under canvas, of fevered gallops over dunes and marshes, he came to escape the great heats in this house on the rue de Rome. It was a house built to his own design, furnished as a summer palace, where he brought together fine minds and pretty girls, calling on the civilised world to give him, for a few short weeks, the essence of all it offered that was elevating and savoury.
‘Déchelette’s back!’ was the news that ran from studio to studio as soon as anyone had seen, like a theatre curtain, the great canvas blind being raised behind the windowed façade of the house. It meant that the festivities were about to begin, and there would be two whole months of them, music parties and feasts, dances and revels, cutting through the silent torpor that gripped the European quarter at this season of holiday departures and bathing expeditions.
Personally, Déchelette took no part in the bacchanalia that filled his house day and night. The tireless seeker of sensations approached his pleasures with the cold passion, the distracted eye, the smile of a man on hashish; but the reality was he took it all in with unruffled calm and clarity. As a friend, he was loyal and generous. Women, whom he held in a sort of oriental contempt, he treated indulgently and politely. Of those who visited his house, attracted by his enormous fortune and the joyful atmosphere, none could claim to have been his mistress for more than a day.
‘A good man all the same,’ added the Egyptian fellah who was telling Gaussin all this. She suddenly interrupted herself: ‘There’s your poet.’
‘Right in front of you… The rustic bridegroom.’
The young man could not prevent an ‘Oh!’ of disappointment. His poet! That fat, shining, sweaty man, clumsy in his dance steps, ridiculous in his peasant’s pointy false collar and flowered waistcoat. The great despairing cries of The Book of Love came to his mind, the book he could never read without a little shiver of fever. And without thinking he murmured aloud:
‘To bring your body’s marble pride to life,
Sappho, I emptied my own veins of blood…’
She turned abruptly, rattling the metal ornaments.
‘What did you just say?’
They were lines of la Gournerie. He was surprised she didn’t know them.
‘I don’t like poetry,’ she said shortly. And she stood, looking out at the ball, frowning, crumbling in her fingers the heads of lilac that hung beside her. Then, deciding with an effort, and at some cost, she said: ‘Goodnight …’ and disappeared.
The poor bagpiper was left in confusion. ‘What’s the matter with her…? What did I say?’ He cast his mind back, found nothing. The best thing he could do, he decided, was go home to bed. He glumly gathered up his instrument and plunged back into the party, troubled less by the departure of the Egyptian woman than by having to make his way through all that throng to reach the front door.
The sense of his own obscurity among so many illustrious names made him more timid than ever. Most people had stopped dancing, apart from a few couples determinedly treading the last measures of a fading waltz, among them the splendid giant Caoudal, head erect, whisking a little tricoteuse with dishevelled hair through such vigorous turns that his tawny arms lifted her from the floor.
The tall windows at the end of the room had been thrown open, and gusts of pale morning air were rustling the palm fronds and flattening the candle flames, as if to blow them out. A paper lantern caught fire, some candle-holders cracked, and meanwhile all around the room servants were setting out little round tables, like those on café terraces. At Déchelette’s they always had supper this way, in fours and fives, and it was the point in proceedings when the like-minded sought each other out and formed groups.
People called out, there were ringing shouts, suburban halloos answering the ululating cries of Oriental damsels, private conversations in hushed voices and the voluptuous laughter of women being led away in an embrace.
Gaussin was taking advantage of the commotion by sliding towards the exit when his way was barred by his student friend, dripping sweat, eyes bulging, a bottle clutched under each am. ‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I’ve got a table, I’ve found some women, that Bachellery girl from the Opera Bouffe. She’s come as a geisha, how about that? She sent me to find you. Come on, quick…’ And he ran off.
The bagpiper felt thirsty. The intoxication in the air was tempting, as was the pouting face of the little actress who was making signs at him in the distance. But a serious and gentle voice murmured in his ear: ‘Don’t go with them.’
The woman from before was there, standing right beside him, tugging at him to go outside, and he followed her without hesitation. How did that happen? It couldn’t have been the woman’s attractiveness; he had hardly looked at her, and the other one over there, calling him, adjusting the steel skewers in her hair, appealed to him much more. But he obeyed a will that was stronger than his own, and the impulsive power of a sudden desire.
Don’t go with them…!
And suddenly they were both out on the pavement of the rue de Rome. Cabs were waiting in the morning pallor. Road-sweepers, labourers on their way to work stared towards this house from where the partying could still be heard, from which it spilled out, this couple in fancy dress, a Mardi Gras in mid-summer.
‘Yours or mine?’ she asked. Without knowing quite why, he thought it would be better at his, gave his distant address to the cabman. During the journey, a long one, they exchanged few words. But she held one of his hands between her own and he could feel how small they were, and cold; and without that chilliness, that nervous holding-on, he might have thought her asleep, lying back in the cab, the blind throwing a shadowy blue light across her face.
They stopped in rue Jacob, outside a student lodging. Four storeys up, a long hard climb. ‘Do you want me to carry you?’ he said, laughing, but keeping his voice down because of the sleeping building. She looked at him steadily, a look that mixed contempt with tenderness, born of experience, weighing him up and plainly saying: ‘Poor boy…’
Upon which he, with fine bravado, born of his youth and the South, hefted her into his arms, bore her off like a child, for he was solid and robust for all his maiden’s fair skin, and he took the first staircase in a single breath, enjoying the weight which two cool and beautiful bare arms attached round his neck.
The second flight was longer, and free from enjoyment. The woman relaxed and held him more loosely, so that, by degrees, she began to feel heavier. The edges of her metalled head-dress, which seemed at first mere tickling caresses, pressed gradually further, and painfully, into his flesh.
By the third, he was panting like a piano-shifter. He fought for breath, whilst she murmured, eyes half closed: ‘You sweet boy, this is good… oh, it’s lovely…’ And the final set, which he scaled one by one, seemed to belong to a giant staircase whose walls, handrail and narrow windows twisted upward in an interminable spiral. It was no longer a woman he was carrying, it was something heavy, horrible, strangling him, and which at every moment he was tempted to let go, to throw down angrily, at the risk of brutal damage.
Once they were on the narrow landing, she opened her eyes and said: ‘Here already…’ ‘At last!’ was his thought, though he couldn’t have spoken it, white as a ghost, his two hands clapped to his exploding chest.
And their entire history was in that ascent of the staircase in the grey sadness of morning.