Read La Chamade Online

Authors: Francoise Sagan

La Chamade (13 page)

She waited for Antoine in the small bar on the Rue de Lille where they habitually met about six-thirty in the evening. She discussed racing with a waiter named Etienne, a rather good-looking, very talkative man, whom Antoine suspected of harbouring a sentimental weakness for Lucile. She had sometimes taken his advice about horses and the results were always disastrous, and Antoine, when he arrived, glanced at them suspiciously, not from jealousy but from fear of a material calamity. Lucile was in very good spirits that day. They had slept late after spending the night in making triumphant, complicated plans that she could no longer remember very clearly, but which sent them rapidly to the seashore, to Africa, or to an ideal country house near Paris. Meanwhile, Etienne, his eyes sparkling, talked to her of a certain Ambroisie II, quoted at ten-to-one, who was a sure thing at Saint-Cloud the next day. And the solitary, thousand-franc note that slept in Lucile's pocket would not doubt have changed hands if Antoine had not arrived looking excited. He kissed Lucile, sat down, and ordered two whiskies, which, considering that it was the 26th of the month, was a sign of celebration.

'What's happened?' asked Lucile.

'I talked to Sirer,' said Antoine (and, faced with Lucile's perplexed expression), 'you know, the editor of
Le Réveil
. He has a job for you, in the archives.'

'The archives?'

'Yes, it's interesting enough, not too much work and he'll give you a hundred thousand francs a month as a start.'

She looked at him, aghast. Now she remembered what they had talked about the night before. They had agreed that Lucile's life was not the life for her, that she should do something. She had enthusiastically welcomed the idea of working, she had even developed a poetical picture of herself working for a newspaper, climbing the ladder, rung by rung, to become one of the brilliant women journalists of whom they talked so much in Paris; of course she would have plenty of work and many worries, but she felt that she had enough courage, humour and ambition to reach the top. They would rent a magnificent flat, at the paper's expense, as they would be forced to entertain a great deal, but every year they could escape and go boating, for at least a month, on the Mediterranean. She had expanded this theory with fervour before Antoine, who was at first sceptical, then gradually, he became interested, for nothing could be more convincing than Lucile with a project, especially when it was a project so crazy, so contrary to her personality as this one. But what could she have drunk or read last night to launch her on such a scheme? She had no more ambition than she had tenacity, no more desire for a career than to commit suicide.

'It's very good pay for that type of paper, you know,' said Antoine.

He seemed delighted with himself. She looked at him with affection: he was still under the influence of their nocturnal conversation, he must have thought about it all day, moved heaven and earth. It was extremely difficult to find that sort of job, so numerous were the housewives who, at the verge of nervous breakdowns caused by idleness, would have paid to scrub floors providing it was in a publishing house, fashion salon, or a newspaper office. And now, there was that crazy Sirer ready to actually pay her. She, who liked nothing but idleness. Life was stupid. She tried to smile at Antoine.

'You don't seem enchanted,' he said.

'It seems too good to be true,' she replied gloomily.

He threw her an amused glance. He knew very well that she regretted her nocturnal decisions, he also knew that she did not dare to tell him so. But he truly thought that she could not avoid boredom in living as she did, that she would become weary of life and of him. In a whisper, he also told himself that a hundred thousand francs, added to his own salary, would offer Lucile an easier life. With a man's optimism, he imagined Lucile gaily buying two little dresses each month. Naturally, they would not be original models, but they would suit her perfectly because she had such a good figure. She would take taxis, see her friends, take a little interest in politics, the world in general, in others at last. He would doubtless be sorry not to find her waiting when he came home, like an animal snuggled into its burrow, this woman who subsisted only on books and love, but nevertheless, he would feel vaguely reassured. For there was something about this static life, the veracity of the present, the contempt for the future that frightened, even vaguely vexed him, as if she were to have been only an element of decoration, a studio setting, which one burns, inexorably, when the film is finished.

'When do I begin?' asked Lucile.

She was really smiling now. She could, after all, try. She had worked before, in her younger days. She would probably be a little bored, but she would hide that from Antoine.

'The first of December. In five or six days. Are you pleased?'

She threw him a suspicious glance. Could he really believe that she was pleased? She had already noted streaks of sadism in him. But he looked innocent, convinced. She nodded gravely:

'I'm very pleased. You're right, it couldn't have lasted.'

He leaned across the table and kissed her so tenderly, so impulsively, that she knew he understood her. Her cheek against his, she smiled and they made fun of her, together, indulgently. And of course, she was relieved that he understood, because she did not like him to mislead himself concerning her, but at the same time, she kept a slight resentment because she had pretended.

At home that evening, Antoine, pencil in hand, indulged in optimistic financial calculations. He would, of course, take care of the rent, the telephone bill, the tiresome small expenses. Lucile's hundred thousand francs would pay for her dresses, car fare and lunches—there was a very good canteen, very gay, at the
Réveil
, where he could have lunch with her—, and Lucile, seated on the bed, listened with stupefaction to these figures. She wanted to tell him that a dress from Dior cost three hundred thousand francs, that she hated the bus—even if it was direct—and that the very word canteen made her want to run away. She felt snobbish, exasperatingly and definitively snobbish. But when he had stopped walking up and down, and had turned to her with an undecided smile, as though he were incredulous of himself, she could not help smiling back. He was like a child, he kept daily accounts as all children do, he established budgets like a state minister, he played with numbers as men love to do. What did it matter, after all, if her own life had to conform to these chimerical equations, as long as it was Antoine who expressed them?

CHAPTER TWENTY

It seemed that she had been there for years, but it had only been fifteen days since she had entered the office at the
Réveil
. It was a large, grey room, crowded with desks, cupboards, filing cabinets and the only window looked out on a small street in the market district. She worked with a young woman called Marianne: three months pregnant, very likeable, very efficient, and who spoke with the same moving vigilance of the future of the newspaper and the expected child. She referred to them both in the masculine gender, certain that the baby would be a boy, and it sometimes happened that Lucile, when Marianne proffered an optimistic remark, such as: 'They won't stop talking about him' or: 'He'll go far', wondered for a moment if she meant the
Réveil
or the future Jerome. Together they sorted newspaper clippings, looked for files, as the orders arrived, on India, penicillin or Gary Cooper, and restored order to the same jumbled files when they were returned. What irritated Lucile was the urgent, serious atmosphere of the place, and the sinister notion of efficiency that droned constantly in their ears. One week after her arrival, she had been present at a general meeting of the editorial staff, a veritable reunion of bees, buzzing with rehashed-ideas—to which they had, with demagogic attention, invited the ants from the ground floor and the archives. During two hours she had assisted, groggily, at an accelerated human comedy where toadyism, conceit, gravity, mediocrity, set the pace in the general concern to augment the circulation of Jerome's rival. Only three men had not made fatuous offerings, the first because he systematically sulked, the second because he was managing editor and—she hoped—a nonplussed managing editor, and the third because he seemed to be a little more intelligent. She had given a lively account of the meeting to Antoine, who, after having laughed warmly, had told her that she exaggerated and that she always saw the dark side of things. She had, in fact, become visibly thinner. She was so bored that she was even incapable of finishing the sandwich at noon which—avoiding the canteen, having tried it for the first and the last time—she would order in a nearby café, while reading a novel. At six-thirty, sometimes eight o'clock (Lucile, my dear, I'm sorry to keep you so late, but you know we're going to press the day after tomorrow), she vainly looked for a taxi, then ended, beaten, by taking a bus, standing up usually, for she still found it repugnant to fight for a seat. She looked at the tired, worried, haggard faces of her fellow passengers, and she felt seized with revolt, more for them than for herself, because all of this, for her, was but a bad dream and she would awaken any moment. But, at their flat, Antoine waited for her, he took her in his arms, she knew again the sentiment of being alive.

The day came when she could no longer bear it, and arriving at her café at one o'clock, she ordered a cocktail from the waiter, astonished, as she never drank, and then a second. She had a file to be studied and she leafed through it for two minutes before closing it again with a yawn. Yet, they had intimated that she could write three lines on the subject and, if they were acceptable, the three lines would probably be published. But it was not possible, not today. Just as it was not possible to return to that grey office later and begin again to play her little part as the active young woman, in front of people who played the parts of thinkers, or men of action. They were bad rôles, or at least it was a bad play. And if Antoine was right, if this play in which she was now acting was acceptable, useful, it was her part that was badly written or, in any case, written for someone else. Antoine was wrong, she knew it now by the violent light from these cocktails, because alcohol sometimes has pitiless, definitive spotlights and they exposed, at present, the thousands of little lies she told herself every day to persuade herself that she was happy. A violent self-pity invaded her. She ordered a third cocktail and the waiter kindly asked her what was wrong. She replied 'everything', gloomily, and he remarked that there were days like that, that it would be better for her to order a sandwich and, for once, to eat it, because she would end in being tubercular like his cousin, a boy who had been in the mountains for nearly six months. So he had noticed that she ate nothing, so he worried about her, Lucile, who scarcely said hello and goodbye, so somebody cared about her. And suddenly she felt tears in her eyes. Alcohol made her sentimental, just as it made her lucid, she had forgotten that. She ordered the sandwich and gravely opened the book she had borrowed from Antoine that morning. It was
The Wild Palms
, by Faulkner, and fate led her quickly to Harry's monologue:

'—Respectability. That's what did it. I found out some time back that it's idleness breeds all our virtues, our most bearable qualities—contemplation, equableness, laziness, letting other people alone; good digestion mental and physical: the wisdom to concentrate on fleshly pleasures— eating and evacuating and fornication and sitting in the sun—than which is nothing better, nothing to match, nothing else in all this world but to live for the short time you are loaned breath, to be alive and know it—... '

Lucile stopped at that point, closed her book, paid the waiter and left. She walked straight to the paper, informed Sirer that she could not continue working, asked him not to speak of it to Antoine, and gave him no other explanation. She stood erect, obstinate, smiling, before him and he looked at her, astounded. She left at once, hailed a taxi, went to a jeweller on the Place Vendôme and sold him, at half-price, the string of pearls that Charles had given her the year before as a Christmas present. She ordered a copy in imitation pearls, disdained the saleswoman's smile of complicity and walked out into the fresh air. She spent half an hour admiring the Impressionists at the Jeu de Paume, two hours at the movies and, on reaching home, told Antoine that she was becoming accustomed to
Le Réveil.
In that way, he would not worry and she would be tranquil for a while. All things considered, she preferred lying to him to lying to herself.

She had fifteen marvellous days. Paris had rendered both her idleness, and the money necessary to enjoy this idleness. She led the life that she had always led, but under false pretences, and naturally, the feeling of playing truant enhanced her simplest pleasures. On the second floor of a Left Bank restaurant she had discovered a sort of bar-bookshop, where she passed her afternoons reading, or talking with the assembly of queer, idle, and generally alcoholic people who haunted it. One of them, a noble old man who said he was a prince, invited her, one day, to lunch with him at the
Ritz
and she devoted a whole hour that morning to dressing, deciding which of the little suits given her by Charles was the most fashionable. She had a fantastic, exquisite lunch at
L'
Espadon,
with a man who gravely lied to her as he unfolded the story of his life, inspired, at the same time, by Malraux and Tolstoi, a man to whom she lied, also, in recounting to him, out of courtesy, her life by Scott Fitzgerald. So he was a Russian prince and historian, she was an American heiress rather more cultured than most. Both of them were too loved and too rich, the head-waiters fluttered about their table, they evoked Proust, whom the prince had known intimately. He paid a bill that must have definitively crippled his budget for the month ahead, and they parted, one enchanted with the other. On returning home, she recounted a thousand anecdotes to Antoine about the daily life at the
Réveil
, she made him laugh; she lied all the more because she loved him, all the more because she was happy and because she wanted him to share this happiness. One day, of course, he would know; one day Marianne, although she had been warned, would answer the telephone and say that Lucile had 'stepped out' for a month, but, on the other hand, this menace now gave to her days an unforeseen savour. She bought ties for Antoine, art books for Antoine, records for Antoine, she talked of advances on her salary, of free lancing, of no matter what, she was gay and Antoine was carried away by this gaiety. With the money from the necklace she had two months assured, two months of doing nothing, of luxury and lies, two months of happiness.

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