TO MY PARENTS
First published in Great Britain
English translation John Murray (Publishers) Ltd, London, and E. P. Dutton
Co. Inc., New York,
Printed in Great Britain by
Tanner Ltd, Frome and London
I have made the magical study
Of happiness, that no man eludes
Part One Spring
She opened her eyes. A bluff, determined wind had entered the room, billowing the curtain into a sail, bending the flowers in a large vase on the floor, and now attacking her sleep. It was a spring wind, the first: it smelt of earth, woods, forests, and having swept unscathed over the suburbs of Paris and the streets reeking of gas fumes it arrived, brisk and swaggering, in her room, at dawn, to point out, even before she was awake, the pleasure of living.
She shut her eyes, rolled over on her stomach and groped for the clock on the floor, her head still buried in the pillow. She must have forgotten it, she always forgot everything. Rising cautiously, she opened the window and looked out. It was dark and the windows facing hers were closed. That wind had no sense or it would not be about so early. She went back to bed, energetically arranged the blankets around her, and for a while pretended to sleep.
In vain. The wind paraded about the room, she sensed that it was vexed by the lush, nodding roses, the frightened swell of the curtains. It passed over her at times, pleading with all its country scents: 'Come for a stroll, come for a stroll with me.' Her sluggish body refused the invitation, snatches of dreams clouded her brain, but her lips slowly relaxed into a smile. Dawn, the country at dawn... the four plane trees on the terrace, their leaves sharply outlined against a white sky, the crunch of gravel under a dog's paws, eternal childhood. What could still give some charm to childhood after the lamentations of writers, the theories of psychoanalysts and the hasty effusions of all humans when the subject was broached: 'When I was a child ...' This was doubtless the yearning for irresponsibility, supreme and lost. But (she never would have wanted to tell anyone) she had not lost it. She felt thoroughly irresponsible.
This last idea got her out of bed. She glanced about the room for her dressing-gown without finding it. Someone must have put it away, but where? She opened the wardrobe with a sigh; she would never become accustomed to this room. Nor to any other, for that matter. She was wholly indifferent to her surroundings. Yet hers was a lovely, high-ceilinged room, with a greyish-blue carpet and two large windows opening onto a Left Bank street. The bed resembled an island flanked by two lonely reefs: a bedside stand and a low table between the windows, antiques of pure style, according to Charles. And the dressing-gown, finally discovered, was silk, and luxury, in fact, something most agreeable.
She walked into Charles' room. He slept with closed windows, his bedside lamp lighted, and no wind had ever disturbed him. His sleeping pills lay neatly by a packet of cigarettes, a lighter, an alarm clock set for eight o'clock, and a bottle of mineral water. The only untidy thing in the room was an evening paper on the floor. She sat at the foot of the bed, staring at him. Charles was a man of fifty with good, softish features and an unhappy look when he slept. He seemed even sadder than usual that morning. He was in real estate, was wealthy and had rather difficult relations with others because of a mixture of shyness and courtesy that sometimes resulted in coldness. They had been living together for two years, if the fact of occupying the same flat, seeing the same people and sometimes sharing the same bed could be called living together. He moaned slightly and turned toward the wall. She thought, once again, that he must be unhappy because of her, and immediately reflected that, however you looked at it, he would have been unhappy with any woman twenty years his junior with an independent spirit. She picked up a cigarette from the bedside table, lit it noiselessly and resumed her contemplation. Charles' hair was greying on top, his mouth becoming somewhat paler and the veins stood out on his beautiful hands. A wave of tenderness swept over her. How could one be so good, so intelligent and so unhappy? She could do nothing for him: no one could console a man for being born and then having to die. She began to cough; it was a mistake to smoke in the morning on an empty stomach. One mustn't smoke on an empty stomach, or drink alcohol, or drive fast, or make love too much, or overtax one's heart, or spend money, or anything else. She yawned. The thing to do was to take the car and follow the spring wind far into the country. And she would not work that day, no more that day than she did on any other. She had, thanks to Charles, lost the habit.
Half an hour later she was speeding along the Nancy road. The car's radio broadcasted a concerto. Was it Grieg? Schumann? Rachmaninov? Surely a romantic composer, but which one? The uncertainty annoyed, yet pleased her. Her only care for culture was through memory, a perceptive memory. I've heard it dozens of times, I know that I was unhappy then and that the music seemed to be attuned to that suffering. She had already forgotten who had made her suffer, perhaps she was already growing old. But that was of little importance. It had been a long time since she had thought about herself, looked at herself, defined herself in her own eyes, and now only the present drove with her in the dawn wind.
The noise made by the car in the courtyard woke Charles. He heard Lucile singing to herself as she closed the garage doors, and wondered with amazement what time it could be. His watch showed eight o'clock. He thought for a moment that Lucile must be ill, but the sound of her gay voice below reassured him. He was tempted to open the window, to stop her, but refrained. This exhilaration he knew so well in her; the exhilaration of solitude. He shut his eyes for an instant: that was the first of the thousand impulses he must check that day so as not to bother Lucile, so as not to encumber Lucile. Had he been fifteen years younger, he would have perhaps opened the window and called out in a commanding but casual voice: 'Lucile, come on up, I'm awake.' And she would have run upstairs to drink a cup of tea with him. She would have sat on his bed, and he would have sent her into gales of laughter with his witty remarks. He shrugged his shoulders. Even fifteen years ago he could not have made her laugh. He had never been amusing. To be nonchalant was something he had discovered only a year ago, thanks to her. Nonchalance ... one of the longest and most difficult studies, apparently, unless you had a natural aptitude for it.
He sat up and looked with astonishment at the ashtray near him. There was a stubbed-out cigarette, and he wondered if he could have forgotten to empty it the night before. That was impossible. Lucile must have come in and smoked. In fact, a small hollow in the bed showed where she had sat. He was a quiet sleeper and a very tidy one; the maids who had watched over his bachelor life had often enough praised him for it. It was one of the things for which he had always been congratulated: his calm, sleeping or awake; his self-possession; his good education. Some people were praised for their charm, but that never happened to him, at least not in an entirely honest way. What a pity. He would have felt as though someone had robed him in glistening plumage, soft and marvellous. Certain words made him suffer cruelly, but quietly as a faded souvenir: 'charm, ease, unconcern' and, Heaven only knows why, 'balcony'.
He had once mentioned this to Lucile; not about the first words, of course, but the last. 'Balcony?' She had repeated: 'balcony, balcony', then asked if he ever thought of the word in the plural. He had said yes. She had asked whether balconies had played any part in his childhood, and he had replied no. Lucile had stared at him, intrigued, and, as happened each time she looked at him, with an expression other than of simple kindness, a wild hope had stirred in him. But she had mumbled something from Baudelaire about balconies in the sky, and their talk had gone no further. No further, as usual. And yet he loved her; he could not let her know how much he loved her. Not that she would have taken advantage of it, but the fact would have troubled, saddened her. That she had not left him was already beyond his hopes. Security was the only thing he could offer her and that, he knew, was the least of her worries. Perhaps.
He rang. Then gathering up the newspaper from the floor he made an effort to read. It was hopeless. Lucile must be driving too fast, as usual, in the car he had given her for Christmas. He had asked one of his friends at
to find out which was the best sports car, the most secure, the steadiest, but had told Lucile that it had been the easiest car to get, pretended to have ordered it by chance the day before and, as he expressed it, 'on the spur of the moment'. She had been delighted. But suppose they telephoned to say that a dark blue car had been found overturned, a young woman pinned under it whose papers ... He got up. All this was idiotic.
Pauline came in with the breakfast tray. He smiled.
'What's the weather like?'
'Greyish, but there's a smell of spring in the air.'
She was sixty and had been in his service for the past ten years. Lyric expressions were not her custom.
'Spring?' he repeated absently.
'Yes, that's what Miss Lucile told me. She was in the kitchen before I came down, took an orange and said she must be off, that there was a smell of spring in the air.'
She smiled. At first Charles had been afraid that she might resent Lucile, but after two impatient months, Pauline's moral attitude had shaped itself clearly: 'Lucile is ten years old mentally and you, sir, aren't a bit older, so you can't be expected to protect her efficiently against the twists and turns of life. That will have to be my duty.' And with admirable energy, she ordered Lucile to rest, to eat, to avoid drinking, and Lucile, apparently delighted, obeyed. It was one of the minor mysteries in his household that Charles thought curious, but at the same time charming.
'She only took an orange?' he asked.
'Yes. And she said to tell you to breathe deeply when you went out because there was a smell of spring in the air.'
Pauline's voice was expressionless. Did she realise that he had begged her for a message from Lucile? She sometimes averted her eyes when he spoke to her, and he felt that what she blamed was not Lucile but the form of his passion for her. A starved, sorrowful passion which Pauline alone was allowed to suspect, one that seemed inexplicable to the sensible woman who had accepted Lucile's personality in a maternal and slightly condescending way. She might have complained, perhaps, had he fallen in love with what she called a 'wicked woman' instead of a 'nice girl'. She did not know that the last could be worse than the first.
Claire Santré's flat had been sumptuous in poor Santré's time. It was less so at present as could be seen in the sparse furnishings, the blue curtains dyed a dozen times over, and the occasional butler's haggard expression as he wondered, for just a moment too long, which of the five drawing-room doors led to the pantry. Nevertheless, it was one of the most agreeable apartments on the Avenue Montaigne, and Claire's invitations much sought after. She was tall, spare and energetic, the sort of blonde who might quite as well have been a brunette. She was a little over fifty, did not look her age, and talked gaily of love, like a woman who was no longer an interested party but who had kept pleasant memories. Consequently, women liked her and men flirted with her in a boisterous, impudent manner. She was a part of the small brave regiment of middle-aged women who somehow manage, in Paris, to live and to remain fashionable—and sometimes even to set the fashion. Claire always invited one or two Americans and one or two Venezuelans to her big dinners, explaining that she was obliged to, even if they were not amusing, because she did business with them. They would be seated next to some society queen, straining to follow a conversation composed of enigmas, obscure allusions and incomprehensible jokes. It could only be hoped that all this would be joyously repeated back in Caracas. In return, Claire's hospitality was rewarded with exclusive rights to Venezuelan fabrics, and her parties never lacked whisky. Finally, she was a clever woman and never spoke ill of anyone, unless it was absolutely necessary in order not to appear stupid. Charles Blassans-Lignières had been, for ten years, one of the pillars of Claire's dinners. He had lent her a great deal of money and never spoke of it to her. He was rich, he was handsome, he spoke little but well, and from time to time, resigned himself to choosing a mistress from among Claire's protegees. The affair would last a year, sometimes two. He took them to Italy in August and sent them to Saint-Tropez when they complained of the summer heat, or in winter to Mégéve, if they grumbled about feeling tired. The liaison ended with a handsome present, ended usually without any apparent reason and, six months later, Claire would 'take him in hand' once more. But, for the last two years the quiet, businesslike Charles had escaped her attentions. He was head over heels in love with Lucile, and Lucile was a most elusive person. She was gay, polite, often amusing, but stubbornly refused to talk about herself, or Charles, or of any plans for the future. Before meeting Charles, she worked for a small paper, the kind that pretended to be Leftist in order to pay its employees badly—and whose bold opinions went no further. She rarely worked there now and the truth was that no one had the faintest idea of how she spent her time. If she had another lover, he did not belong to Claire's set, although Claire had sent scouts reconnoitring without success. Her imagination exhausted, Claire had suggested to Lucile a little Balzacian intrigue of the sort commonly practised in Paris and which would have provided Lucile with a mink coat, plus a cheque from Charles amounting to the price of the mink coat.