La Chamade (11 page)

On the fifteenth day, he met Johnny, on holiday and wandering about the
and who seemed delighted to see him again. They took a table, had a whisky together and Antoine
was amused by Johnny's priggish manner when he returned the greetings of his friends. Johnny knew himself to be rather good-looking, just as he knew himself to be blond, but without further interest.

'So how is Lucile?' asked Johnny, at one moment.

'I really don't know.'

Johnny began to laugh.

'I knew it. You were right to end it. She's charming but dangerous. She'll probably end in being an alcoholic and what's more, lulled by Charles.'

'What makes you think so?' Antoine watched over his voice, with carefully calculated indifference.

'She's begun. One of my friends saw her staggering about the beach. But that shouldn't surprise you.'

Before Antoine's expression, he started to laugh.

'Come now, you know that she was madly in love with you, it could be seen from twenty feet, without knowing. What's the matter with you?'

Antoine laughed, he could not stop laughing, he was mad with happiness, mad with shame, he was stupid, he had been too stupid. Of course she loved him, of course she thought of him, how could he have believed that she did not love him, after having been so happy with him for two months? How could he have been so pessimistic, so selfish, so thoughtless? She loved him, she missed him, and she drank on the sly because of it. Maybe she even believed he had forgotten her, when he had done nothing but think of her these last fifteen days, perhaps she was unhappy because of his gross stupidity. He would go to her at once, explain everything, do anything she wanted, for he would take her in his arms, beg her pardon, they would embrace for hours. Where was Saint-Tropez?

He had got up from his chair.

'Now then,' said Johnny, 'keep calm. You look like a raving maniac, my dear friend.'

'Sorry,' said Antoine, 'I must make a telephone call.'

He ran all the way to his flat, quarrelled with a telephone operator who was slow in explaining how the automatic worked in the Var department, tried three hotels and was informed by the fourth that Mademoiselle Saint-Léger was on the beach, but would be coming in soon. He placed a person-to-person call and settled down on the bed, his hand on the receiver, like Lancelot of the Lake holding the hilt of his sword, ready to wait two hours, six hours, his whole life, happier, he thought, than he had ever been.

At four o'clock, the telephone rang and he picked up the receiver.

'Lucile? It's Antoine.'

'Antoine,' she repeated, as though she were dreaming.

'I must... I should like to see you. May I come to Saint-Tropez?'

'Yes,' she answered. 'When?'

And although she spoke calmly, he recognised in her terse reply the fall and retreat of the horrible and cruel thing, which had, like himself, twisted, shaken, maltreated them during fifteen days. He saw his own hand lying on the bed, he was surprised to see that it did not tremble.

'There must be a plane,' he said. 'I'm leaving at once. Will you meet me at Nice?'

'Yes,' she said. (She hesitated, then added:) 'Are you at home?'

He repeated her name three times into the telephone: 'Lucile, Lucile, Lucile..before answering affirmatively.

'Hurry,' she said, and hung up.

His only thoughts at the moment were that perhaps she was with Charles, and that he could not afford to take a plane. But they were casual thoughts. He felt capable of robbing his neighbour, or killing Charles, or piloting a Boeing. And, in fact, at seven-thirty, he could have taken the hostess' advice and, to the left of the plane, admired the city of Lyons if he had wanted to do so.

After the call, Lucile closed her book, took a sweater out of the closet, the keys of the car that Charles had rented and went downstairs. She caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror that cluttered the hotel lobby and she gave herself a furtive, undecided smile, the kind one shows to a very sick person, condemned by the doctors, and who suddenly leaves the hospital, apparently cured. She must drive very carefully, the road was in bad condition and full of curves. An imprudent dog, a speed-demon, a material accident must not come between her and Antoine and she thought practically only of that, as if drugged, lost to herself until she reached the airport. There was an arrival from Paris at six o'clock and, though there was no chance that he would be there, she waited at the exit. The next plane was at eight o'clock and she bought a detective novel, installed herself at the bar, upstairs, and vainly tried to understand what was happening to a private detective, usually fascinating, who was now incapable of holding her interest. She knew the expression 'an overpowering happiness' but she had never verified its truth and she was surprised to feel as if she had been through the mill, broken, exhausted to such a point that she wondered if she would not faint or fall asleep in her chair before eight o'clock. She called the waiter and informed him that she was expecting someone on the eight o'clock plane, which seemed, however, of only mediocre interest to the man. But at least if anything happened to her, he could let Antoine know. How, she did not know, but every precaution must be taken to protect the new, bewildered, frail, the happy person that she had at last become. She went so far as to change tables so that she could see the bar's huge clock, as the loud-speakers were impossible to understand. After she had conscientiously looked at all the printing on the pages of her book, it was only seven o'clock, a tearful woman embraced a wounded but triumphant detective in a Miami hospital and her own heart ached.

An hour, two months, thirty years went by before Antoine appeared at the far end of the hall, the first passenger for he had no luggage. And as he took the few steps that separated them, she thought only that he looked thin, very pale, badly dressed, that she scarcely knew him; the same detached conscience admitted too that she loved him. He came up to her awkwardly, they shook hands without looking at each other much and hesitated for a moment before moving toward the exit. He murmured that she was tanned, she hoped, aloud, that he had had a pleasant trip. After which, they got into the car, she showed Antoine where the starter was, and they drove off. It was a warm evening, the odour of the sea blended with the smell of the automobile and the airport's palm trees stirred gently in the wind. They drove for a few miles without talking, or even knowing where they were going, then Antoine stopped the car and took her in his arms. He did not kiss her, but simply held her close, his cheek against hers and she could have wept with relief. When he did speak, it was very low, gently, like a child.

'Where is Charles?' he asked 'He must be told.'

'Yes,' she said. 'He is in Paris.'

'We'll take the train tonight. There is a night train isn't there? We can take it at Cannes.'

She agreed tacitly and moved away a little to look at him, to see his eyes, at last, and the shape of his mouth. He leaned forward to kiss her. There was one sleeper left at Cannes. All night long there were the shrieks of the train, the flashes of light on their united faces, and occasionally, when they stopped at a station, the loud metallic sound of the railroad hand who, with his iron rod, watched over the safety of the wheels, their progress toward Paris, their destiny. It seemed to them that the train's speed doubled with their pleasure, that it had gone mad, and that it was themselves who pushed this feverish motion in the sleeping countryside.

'I knew it,' said Charles.

He turned his back and leaned his brow against the window pane. She sat up in bed, exhausted. Her ears still echoed with the train's roar. When they had reached the Gare de Lyon early that morning, it was raining. Then she had telephoned Charles from his flat, their flat, and she had waited for him there. He had come very quickly and she told him immediately that she was in love with Antoine and that she must leave him. And now, he pretended to look out of the window, she was surprised that his neck should remain so straight and that the fact did not stir her, whereas Antoine's neck and his stiff tangled hair moved her so much. It seemed impossible to remember that some men had ever been children.

'I imagined that it would be of no importance,' said Charles. 'You see, I hoped...' He stopped short and turned to her: 'You must understand that I love you. Don't think that I shall console myself, or forget you, or replace you. I'm no longer young enough for substitutions.' He smiled faintly: 'You will come back to me, Lucile. I love you for yourself. Antoine loves you for what you are together. He wants to be happy with you, that's the way it is at his age. I want you to be happy independently of me. All I have to do is to wait.'

She made a protesting gesture, but he quickly raised his hand.

'What's more, he will blame you, or already has, for being what you are: an easy-going, rather cowardly epicure. He will naturally resent what he will call your faults or weaknesses. He does not yet understand that what makes a woman's strength is the reason for which men love her, even if that reason conceals the worst. He will learn that with you. He will learn that you are gay, funny and kind because you have all these faults. But it will be too late. At least, so I think. And you will come back to me. Because you know that I know.'

He gave a light laugh.

'I haven't accustomed you to such long speeches, have I? Now tell him, from me, that if he hurts you, that if, in a month or in three years, he doesn't give you back to me, whole and happy as you are now, I shall break every bone in his body.'

He spoke almost angrily and she looked at him, stunned. She did not know that he was capable of giving such an impression of strength, almost of violence.

'I'm not trying to persuade you to stay, it would be useless, wouldn't it? But remember this well: I'm waiting for you. No matter when. And no matter what you want of me, for no matter what reason, it will be yours. Are you leaving right away?'

She nodded.

'You are taking everything of yours with you. (And as she shook her head, definite.) No, I couldn't bear to see your coats in the wardrobe or your car in the garage. Your absence may be long, after all...'

Inert, she looked at him. She knew it would be like this: horrible, and that he would be like this: perfect. Everything had taken place just as she had long imagined, and with the despair she felt at his suffering was mingled a pride in having been loved by him. She couldn't leave him like this, in this immense flat, all alone. She got up.

'Charles,' she said. 'I...'

'No,' he replied. 'You've waited long enough. Be on your way now.'

He stood still for a moment, staring at her so intently that his expression was almost dreamy. Then he bent quickly, his lips touched her hair and he turned away.

'You must go now. I'll send your bags to the Rue de Poitiers later.'

She was not surprised that he knew Antoine's address. She despised herself so much that she could see nothing but Charles' slight stoop, his grey hair, and feel that she had caused them. She whispered: 'Charles...' not knowing whether she wanted to say 'thank you,' or 'forgive me', or some other tactless remark, for he made a feverish, broken gesture, without turning, as much as to signify that he could not support much more, and she backed out of the room. In the staircase, she realised that she was crying and went to the kitchen where she collapsed, sobbing, on the shoulder of Pauline, who assured her that men were all tedious and not worth weeping over. Antoine was waiting for her outside, in a café, in the sun.



Part Two    Summer



She felt that she was the victim of a strange, wonderful disease that she knew to be happiness, although she hesitated to call it so. In a way, she found it fantastic that two intelligent, nervous and critical human beings should arrive at this degree of intimate unity, at this point exhausted of aspirations, that all they could say was 'I love you' with a sort of sob in their voice, for there was nothing to add. She knew that there was nothing else to add, nothing more to be hoped for, that this was what is called completeness, but she asked herself what she would do later to survive the memory of this completeness. She was happy, she was afraid.

They told each other everything: their childhood, their past and always, always they returned to the last few months, recounting endlessly, like all lovers, their first meetings, the tiniest details of their affair. They wondered with the stupor (real and a little foolish) so normal, how they could have doubted for so long their true sentiments. But if they revelled in their troubled and turbulent past together, they did not dream of a mutual future that was to be peaceful and lasting. Lucile, even more than Antoine, was afraid of projects, of the simple life. Meanwhile, they watched, fascinated, the present unfold, the day break to find them together in the same bed, never wearying of each other, the sky darken at twilight to find them walking about a warm, tender, incomparable Paris. And, at certain moments, they were so happy that it seemed to them as though they were no longer in love.

It was enough for Antoine to be an hour late for Lucile, who had watched him leave with a calm—almost an indifference so total that she began to doubt that she had been as she had been at Saint-Tropez: that sick, ravaged, voiceless animal— for Lucile to begin to shake with fear, to imagine Antoine's body lying under a bus, and in her mind to define his presence as happiness, since his absence meant despair. And it was enough that Lucile smile at another man for Antoine (the constant, physical possession of her body—even if he did not tire of it—reassured him completely) to grow pale, to change happiness into something fragile, temporary and forever insecure. Even in their most tender moments, there was something disquieting and violent between them. And if at times they suffered from this uneasiness, they also knew, strangely, that if it disappeared in either of them, their love would vanish with it. In fact, the foundation of their relationship had been determined by two almost equal sentimental shocks: for her, Antoine's lateness, that unforgettable afternoon and for him, Lucile's refusal to leave with him the day of Charles' return from America. And Lucile—whose modesty was as marked as her pride, like most carefree people—thought hazily that some day Antoine would not come back, just as Antoine thought in the same way Lucile would be unfaithful to him some evening. These two wounds that happiness should have healed, they kept open, almost deliberately, just as a man who has survived a serious accident takes pleasure, after six months of suffering, in scratching open the last sore to better enjoy the perfect condition of the rest of his body. Each of them had need of a thorn in their flesh, Antoine because of a profound want, Lucile, because this requited love was something too unknown.

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