La Chamade (15 page)

She telephoned him, she dialled the familiar office number, greeted the switchboard operator. He was there. She had a curious feeling when she heard his voice and it took a moment for her to recover her breath.

'Charles,' she said, 'I should like to see you. I'm in trouble.'

'I'll send the car for you in an hour,' he replied calmly, 'Is that all right?'

'Oh yes, yes,' she said, 'in an hour.'

She waited for him to hang up and then, as he did not, she remembered his unfailing courtesy, and put down the receiver. She dressed hurriedly, and had to wait for three-quarters of an hour afterwards, her brow pressed against the window pane, for the car to arrive. The chauffeur greeted her joyfully and, with a feeling of immense relief, she sat down on the familiar seat.

Pauline opened the door and embraced her. The flat was the same as always, vast, warm, quiet and the carpet under the English furniture was the same soft, pleasant blue. For a second, she felt badly dressed, then she began to laugh. It was something like the return of the prodigal child, but this time bringing a child of its own. The car had returned for Charles, and Lucile sat in the kitchen with Pauline and had a whisky, just as she used to do. Pauline grumbled, thought she was thinner, had lines under her eyes, and Lucile wanted to lay her head on her shoulder and let her settle the future. At the same time, she admired Charles' thoughtfulness that sent her alone to his house, as though it was still her house, that gave her the time to become accustomed to her past, she didn't imagine that it was, perhaps, cleverness. And when he called out from the hall, 'Lucile!' almost gaily, she felt that time had gone back six months.

He too was thinner and looked older. He took her by the arm and led her into the drawing-room. He firmly asked for two whiskies from a protesting Pauline, then closed the door and sat down facing her. She suddenly felt intimidated. She glanced about the room, remarked in a loud voice that nothing had changed and he repeated in a too-tender voice that indeed, nothing had changed, not even himself, and she thought with panic that he perhaps imagined that she had returned to him. She began to talk so fast that he had to ask her to repeat her words.

'Charles, I'm expecting a baby, I don't want to keep it, I must go to Switzerland, I have no money.'

He murmured that he had imagined that it would be something of the sort.

'Are you sure that you don't want to keep it?'

'I can't afford to.
We
can't afford to,' she answered, blushing. 'And then, I want to be free.'

'You're absolutely certain that it's not only a question of money?'

'Absolutely certain,' she said.

He got up, took several steps about the room, then turning, he began to laugh sadly:

'Life is all wrong, isn't it? I would have given so much for us to have a child, and you would have had two nurses, if you had wanted ... But you wouldn't have kept my child either, would you?'

'No.'

'You don't want to have anything of your own, do you? Neither a husband, nor a child, nor a home ... really nothing. It's very strange.'

'I don't want to own anything,' she said, 'and you know that. I have a horror of possessions.'

He sat down at his desk, wrote a cheque: he handed it to her.

'I know a very good address in Geneva, all I ask is that you go there, I shall be less worried. Will you promise?'

She nodded. She had a lump in her throat, she would have liked to cry out for him not to be so kind, so comforting, not to make her shed the tears that filled her eyes. Tears of relief, bitterness and melancholy. She stared at the blue carpet, breathed in the odour of tobacco and leather that always pervaded the study, she could hear Pauline laughing with the chauffeur. She felt warm and sheltered.

'You know I'm still waiting for you,' said Charles. 'I'm horribly bored without you. It's not very tactful to tell you so today, but we see so little of each other.'

He gave a small, forced laugh that put an end to her thoughts. She jumped up, muttered a hoarse 'Thank you', and hurried to the door. She wept as she went down the stairs, as she had the last time, and she heard Charles call out: 'Let me hear from you afterwards, or get in touch with my secretary', as she walked out into the rain. She felt saved, she felt lost.

'I don't want that money,' said Antoine. 'Have you thought for a moment of what that man thinks of me? Does he take me for a pimp? I take his woman from him and I make him pay for my blunders?'

'Antoine...'

'It's too much, far too much. I'm not a model of morality, but there are limits. You refuse to have my child, you lie to me, you sell your pearls on the sly, you do not matter what just so long as it pleases you. But I won't have you borrowing money from your former lover to kill your present lover's baby. It's not possible.'

'You probably think it more virtuous that I should be mangled by a butcher that
you
would pay. Who would leave me to die if there was the slightest infection. You think it moral that I should be injured permanently, perhaps, so long as it isn't Charles that prevents it?'

They had turned out the red lamp and talked in whispers, so much the horror of their discussion sickened them. For the first time, they felt a contempt for each other, and though they did not want this contempt, they could not control it.

'You're cowardly, Lucile, cowardly and selfish. At fifty, you'll find yourself alone, with nothing. Your damned charm won't work anymore. You'll have no one to console you.'

'You're as much of a coward as I am. You're a hypocrite. What bothers you is not that I kill the child, but that it would be Charles that paid for the operation. Your honour before my health. Where are you going to put that honour, tell me that?'

They felt cold, avoided touching each other, they felt upon them, in that large bed—which had so long been their only escape—the weight of the world. They imagined evenings alone, money worries, wrinkles, atomic missiles blasting off in a burst of fire, they saw a hostile, difficult future, they saw a life one without the other, a life without love. He knew that if he let Lucile go to Switzerland, he would never forgive himself, or her, and that it would be the end of their love. He knew that the
interne
was dangerous. He knew that if she kept the baby, she would be gradually exhausted by the wear and tear of time, that she would become bored and that she would no longer love him. She was made for men, not for children, she would never be enough of an adult herself. And, if one day she became adult, she would no longer like herself. All day long, he had thought; 'It's not possible, all women pass by that one day, they have children, they have money worries, that's life, and she must understand that. She's just selfish.' But when he saw her again, when he looked at her innocent, absent, unworried face, he had the impression that with her it was not a shameful weakness, but a deep, hidden, animal force that kept her from life in its most natural sense. He could not help having a vague respect for what he had despised ten minutes earlier. Untouchable. Her determination for pleasure made her untouchable, made of her selfishness what one called honesty, her indifference, interest. He gave a peculiar moan, a moan that seemed to spring from, his childhood, his birth, his whole destiny as a man.

'Lucile, I beg of you, keep the child. It's our only chance.'

She did not reply. A few minutes later, he stretched out his hand toward her, touched her face. He felt the tears that fell onto her cheek and her chin, he wiped them away awkwardly.

'I'll ask for a rise,' he continued, 'we'll get along somehow. There are plenty of students that come to stay with children in the evening, and there is the day nursery the rest of the time ... it's not so difficult. He will be one, two, ten years old, he will belong to us. I should have told you all this the first day, I don't know why I didn't. We must try, Lucile.'

'You know very well why you didn't. You didn't believe in it. No more than I did.'

She spoke calmly but she continued to cry.

'We weren't like this at first. We hid ourselves for a long time, we deceived people, we made them unhappy. We were made for lawlessness and for our own pleasure. Not to be unhappy together. We were united only for the best, Antoine, you know very well... Neither you nor I have the strength to ... do as others do.'

She turned over on her stomach, laid her head on his shoulder.

'Sunshine, beaches, idleness, freedom ... that's our due, Antoine, and we can't do anything about it. It's in our minds, under our skin. That's the way it is. We're probably what people call rotten. But I only feel rotten when I pretend to believe them.'

He did not answer. He looked at the spot of light cast on the ceiling by a street lamp, he saw again the confused expression on Lucile's face when he had tried to force her to dance at the
Prè-Catelan.
He recalled his own immense sadness at the sight of her tears, he recalled how intensely he had desired her to cry on his shoulder one night, so that he might comfort her. She was crying now and he had won, but he could not comfort her. It was not worth the trouble to lie to himself, he did not care that much about the child, all he wanted was Lucile, alone and elusive and free. Their love had always been based on anxiety, unconcern and sensuality. He felt a great surge of tenderness, he took that half-woman, that half-child, that invalid, that irresponsible, his love, in his arms and whispered to her:

'Tomorrow morning, I'll pick up the plane tickets for Geneva.'

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Five weeks passed. The operation had been brief, well done, and on her return to Paris she had telephoned Charles to reassure him. But he was not there and, with a vague feeling of disappointment, she had left a message with the switchboard operator. Antoine was occupied with a new book series that had been confided to him and his situation had greatly improved, thanks to one of the numerous upheavals that had taken place in the publishing business at that time. They frequently dined with friends, collaborators and business relations of Antoine, and she was surprised and delighted to see how much his personality influenced them. Lucile and Antoine never mentioned Geneva, they merely took certain precautions. This was, actually, not very difficult as she was rather tired and he was rather worried and it sometimes happened that they simply kissed fondly before going to sleep, at first the face turned toward the other, then the back. She happened on Johnny, at the
Flore,
one very rainy afternoon in February. He was reading an art magazine, one eye cocked on a handsome blond boy seated at a nearby table; she continued on her way, but he called to her, invited her warmly and she sat down next to him at the table. He was, of course, very tanned and he made her laugh for a long while with Claire's latest adventures at Gstaad. Diane had exchanged her Cuban diplomat for an English novelist who deceived her with young men—which obviously delighted Johnny. He absently asked for news of Antoine and she replied in the same way. It had been a long time since she had laughed so freely, so maliciously. Antoine's friends were, as a rule, intelligent, but redoubtably serious.

'You know that Charles is still waiting for you,' said Johnny. 'Claire tried to push the little de Clairvaux into his arms, but that didn't last two days. I've never seen a man yawn so much. He went from the hotel lobby to the hotel restaurant, to the hotel bar, giving everybody the blues. It was frightful. What did you do to him? What do you do to men in general? I shall have need of your advice.'

He smiled. He had always had affection for Lucile and it displeased him to see her in an old suit, her hair in disorder. She still had that adolescent charm, that distant, but amused expression, but she looked pale and thin. He was worried.

'You're happy?'

She answered yes, quickly, too quickly, and he guessed that she was bored. After all, Blassans-Lignières had always been charming to him, why not try to bring Lucile back to him. It would be a good deed. And he completely forgot, in the search for his motives, the violent jealousy he had felt, it was eight months ago, when he saw gazing at each other, motionless and pale with desire, at that fashionable American's cocktail party, Lucile and Antoine, who were lovers of one day.

'You ought to telephone Charles some day. He doesn't look well. Claire even imagines that he has some dreadful disease.'

'You mean to say ...'

'They talk so much about cancer these days. But there, I'm afraid there's some truth.'

He lied. He was amused to see Lucile's face grow a little paler. Charles ... Charles, so kind, so alone in his immense flat. Charles, so deserted by all the people whom he disliked, who disliked him, by all the girls flung at him for his money.

Charles ill. She ought to call him up. Antoine had, as it happened, important lunch and dinner engagements for the whole of the coming week. She thanked Johnny for having told her the news and the latter remembered, a little late, that Claire detested Lucile. She would surely be furious if she went back to Charles. But it did not bother him to play a dirty trick on that dear Claire now and then.

So Lucile telephoned Charles one morning and they agreed to lunch together the next day. It was a fine, clear, winter day, but very cold and he found it necessary for her to have several cocktails to warm up, at the same time as he did. The waiters' hands skimmed over the table like swallows, it was pleasantly warm, and the slight and—one could feel—futile hubbub of the restaurant made a most reassuring background. Charles ordered the menu with his usual art, he remembered all her likings. She watched him attentively, trying to detect traces of the illness in his face but, in fact, he looked somewhat younger than at their last encounter. She finally told him so, in a faintly reproachful voice, and he smiled.

'I've had troubles all this winter. A bronchitis that dragged on and on. But I spent three deadly weeks at a mountain resort and now it's finished.'

'Johnny told me that you had trouble with your health ...'

'Me? Not the least,' he answered cheerfully, 'You can well imagine that I would have let you know.'

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