La Chamade (2 page)

'I don't need money,' Lucile had said, 'And I detest that sort of business.'

She spoke dryly, without looking at Claire. The latter, after a moment of panic, had one of the strokes of genius that justified her career. She took Lucile's hands in hers.

'Thank you, my dear. You must understand, I love Charles like a brother and I know you so slightly. Excuse me. Had you accepted, I should have been afraid for him, that's all.'

Lucile had burst into laughter and Claire, who had vaguely hoped for a moving little scene, remained anxious until, at a dinner, she saw Charles again exactly as he had always been. Lucile knew how to hold her tongue. Or perhaps, to forget.

In any case, that spring appeared to be marked for disaster. Claire muttered to herself as she examined the table arrangements. Johnny, the first guest to arrive, according to a time-honoured agreement, followed her like a shadow. He had been a homosexual until the age of forty-five, but now, after a day's work and a dinner, felt incapable of meeting a handsome young man at midnight. He was content to follow them with melancholy eyes in the drawing-rooms. Their society killed everything, even vice. It must, for the pious souls, be given credit for that at least. So Johnny had become Claire's devoted escort. He accompanied her to dress rehearsals, to dinners and helped at her receptions, self-consciously but with admirable tact. His name was Jean, but as everybody thought that Johnny sounded gayer, he bowed to the inevitable and, in the course of twenty years, had even acquired a faintly British accent.

'Whom are you thinking about, my pet? You seem so nervous.'

'I was thinking about Charles. I was thinking about Diane. As you know, she's bringing love's young dream along with her. I've only seen him once, but I'm not counting on him to enliven the dinner. How can one be thirty, so good-looking and so gloomy?'

'Diane's great mistake is falling for intellectuals. It's never been a success for her.'

'Some intellectuals are amusing,' said Claire with indulgence, 'but Antoine is not an intellectual: he confines himself to editing a series of books at Renoard's. And how much does an editor make? Nothing. You know that as well as I do. Diane's fortune, thank Heaven, is sufficient for...'

'I don't believe he cares much about money,' said Johnny feebly, for he thought Antoine very handsome.

'Oh, he'll come to it,' said Claire in the weary voice of experience. 'Diane is forty and has millions, he is thirty and earns two hundred thousand francs a month. That sort of equation can't last.'

Johnny began to laugh but stopped suddenly. He had used an anti-wrinkle cream recommended by Pierre-André and had not had time to let it dry thoroughly. He would have to remain stone-faced until eight-thirty. As it happened, it was eight-thirty already. He laughed again and Claire threw him an astonished glance. Johnny was an angel but the bullet or two he got when playing the hero serving with the R.A.F. in 1942 must have done something to his brain. A ... what was it, a lobe, yes, a lobe must have been affected. She looked at him with amusement. To think that those long white hands, now too delicately arranging the flowers on the table, had grasped a machine-gun, a joy-stick, and brought in flaming planes in the middle of night... Human beings were so often surprising. One never knew 'everything' about them. Actually, that was the reason why she was never bored. She gave a long, satisfied sigh, cut short by the stiff belting around her waist. Cardin went too far when he pictured her as a sylph. Lucile tried to disguise a yawn, done by breathing in through the corners of the mouth, then exhaling softly between the front teeth. It resulted in a rather rabbit-like appearance but one's eyes did not fill with tears afterwards. The dinner seemed interminable. She sat between Johnny, who had been anxiously patting his face since the meal began, and a quiet, handsome young man, said to be Diane Merbel's new lover. The silence, however, did not bother her. She hadn't the least desire to fascinate anyone that evening. She had been up too early. She tried to remember the odour of that devilish spring wind and closed her eyes for a moment. She was surprised, on opening them, to find that Diane was staring harshly at her. Was Diane so much in love with the young man, or jealous? She looked at him: he had ash-blond hair and a firm, determined chin. He kneaded a bit of bread into a ball. There was a whole row of them round his plate. The conversation turned to the theatre. An excellent topic, for Claire adored a play that Diane loathed. Lucile made an effort and turned toward the young man.

'Have you seen the play?'

'No. I never go to the theatre. And you?'

'Very rarely. Last time, I saw that charming English comedy at the
Atelier
, with an actress who was later killed in a car accident. What was her name? I've forgotten.'

'Sarah,' he said softly, and laid both hands flat on the tablecloth.

His expression petrified Lucile for a second. She thought suddenly: 'My God, he's really unhappy!'

'Forgive me,' she said.

He turned toward her and asked, 'What?' in a dreary voice. He no longer saw her. She could hear him breathing, unevenly, like a man who had received a shock and the idea that she had caused it, although unintentionally, hurt her deeply. She took no pleasure in being insolent, and even less in being cruel. 'What are you dreaming about, Antoine?' Diane's voice had a strange sound, just a shade too light, and created a silence. Antoine did not answer: he seemed blind and deaf.

'He really is dreaming and no mistake,' said Claire, laughing. 'Antoine, Antoine ... '

Nothing. Now there was a dead silence. Forks in hand, motionless, the guests watched the pale young man as he sat staring at a not very interesting decanter in the centre of the table. Lucile quickly laid her hand on his sleeve and he stirred: 'What did you say?'

'I said you were dreaming,' replied Diane curtly, 'and we wondered what about. Is it indiscreet?'

'It's always indiscreet,' interposed Charles. He looked attentively at Antoine now, like everyone else. Antoine had arrived as Diane's latest lover, possibly her gigolo, and now suddenly he had become a young dreamer. A gust of envy, of nostalgia, passed over the table.

And, in Claire's mind, a gust of spite. After all, this was a dinner for the happy few, the well-known, brilliant, amusing, in touch with everything. The young man should have listened, approved, laughed. If he was dreaming of a dinner with some schoolgirl in a Latin Quarter snack-bar, he had but to leave Diane, one of the most charming and fashionable women in Paris. And one who bore well her forty-five years. Except tonight; she was pale and watchful. If she had not known her so well, Claire might have imagined Diane to be unhappy. She continued:

'I bet you were dreaming about a Ferrari. Carlos bought the latest model. He took me for a ride in it the other day and I thought my last hour had come. And Heaven knows he's a good driver!' she added with a shade of surprise, for Carlos was heir to some throne or other and she thought it exceptional that he should be able to do anything but sit in the
Crillon
lobby, waiting for the return of the monarchy.

Antoine turned to Lucile and smiled. He had light brown, almost yellow eyes, a straight nose, a wide handsome mouth, and a certain virility that contrasted with the fairness of his hair.

'Please forgive me,' he said in a low voice. 'You must think me very rude.'

He looked at her squarely, his eyes did not wander idly over her shoulders or the tablecloth, as men's usually do, and he seemed to exclude completely the rest of the table.

'We've exchanged three sentences and begged each other's pardon twice,' said Lucile.

'We're beginning at the end,' he answered gaily. 'Couples always end by asking pardon, or at least one of the two does. "I beg your pardon but I don't love you anymore." '

'That's still quite elegant. Personally, what irks me is the honest approach: "I beg your pardon, I thought I loved you, I was mistaken. It's my duty to tell you so." '

'That can't have happened to you often,' said Antoine.

'Thank you very much!'

'I mean that you can't have given many men the chance to say it. Your bags would have been packed and waiting in a taxi.'

'Particularly since my luggage consists of two sweaters and a toothbrush,' said Lucile with a laugh.

He paused, then: 'Oh? I thought you were Blassans-Lignières' mistress.'

'What a pity,' she thought quickly. 'I thought he was intelligent.' For her there was no possibility of coexistence between gratuitous malice and intelligence.

That's true,' she replied, 'you're quite right. If I left now, it would be in my car, with lots of dresses. Charles is very generous.'

She had spoken calmly. Antoine lowered his eyes.

'Forgive me. I detest this dinner and this group.'

'Then don't come here anymore. At your age, it's dangerous anyway.'

'You know, little one,' said Antoine, suddenly irritated, 'I'm most certainly older than you.'

She broke into laughter. Diane and Charles regarded them fixedly. They had been placed next to each other at the other end of the table, facing their 'protégés': the parents on one side, the children on the other. Children of thirty who refused to play at being grown-up. Lucile stopped laughing: she did nothing with her life, loved no one. If she were not so happy to be alive, she would have killed herself.

Antoine laughed. Diane suffered. She had seen him laugh with another. He never laughed with her. She would have even preferred that he kiss Lucile. It was frightening, that laugh, his suddenly youthful expression. What were they laughing about? Diane glanced at Charles, but he was watching them fondly. Charles had become idiotic in the last two years. Lucile had charm and very good manners, but she was neither a beauty nor an intellectual phenomenon. Nor was Antoine, for that matter. She had had other men better looking than Antoine, and mad about her. Yes, mad. But it was Antoine that she loved. She loved him, she wanted him to love her, and someday she would have him at her mercy. He would forget that dear, departed actress and she, Diane, would be everything to him. Sarah ... how often she had heard that name: Sarah. He had spoken of her at first, until one day, exasperated, she had told him that Sarah had been unfaithful to him, that everyone knew. He had said blankly: 'I knew it too.' And they had never mentioned her name again. But he whispered it in his sleep. Soon ... soon, when he turned over in his sleep and stretched his arm over her body in the dark, it would be her own name he would whisper. Suddenly, she felt her eyes fill with tears. She began to cough and Charles patted her gently on the back. This dinner seemed endless. Claire Santrè had drunk a little too much, as happened to her more and more frequently. She discussed paintings with an assurance that far surpassed her knowledge, and Johnny, a connoisseur, was visibly suffering.

'Well,' said Claire in conclusion, 'when this young fellow showed up with that thing under his arm, when I turned it to the light, thinking my sight was failing me, do you know what I said?'

The guests wearily shook their heads.

'I said: "Monsieur, I thought I had eyes to see with, but I was mistaken; I see nothing on your canvas, Monsieur, absolutely nothing." '

And with an eloquent gesture, no doubt intended to illustrate the picture's emptiness, she upset her wine glass on the tablecloth. Everybody seized the opportunity to get up, Lucile and Antoine with heads lowered to hide their uncontrollable laughter.

CHAPTER FOUR

There can never be enough said of the virtues, the dangers, the powers of a shared laugh. Love can no more do without it than can friendship, desire or despair. Between Antoine and Lucile, it was the impromptu laugh of students. The two of them, desired, pampered, loved by serious adults, knowing they would be punished in one way or another, gave in to their helpless laughter in a corner of the drawing-room. Parisian etiquette, even if it separates lovers during dinner, nonetheless calls for a short truce afterward, when one recovers his bedmate for an exchange of gossip, loving words or reprovals. Diane waited for Antoine to rejoin her and Charles had already taken the first step in Lucile's direction. But the latter obstinately continued to look out the window, her eyes filled with tears, and the moment her glance fell upon Antoine standing nearby, she quickly turned away while he hid his face behind a handkerchief. Claire tried to ignore them, but it was evident that an atmosphere of jealousy and rancour now dominated the drawing-room. She sent Johnny on his way with a nod of her head that signified 'tell those children to behave themselves or they won't be invited again', a nod of the head that, unfortunately, was seen by Antoine who, overcome anew, was forced to prop himself against the wall. Johnny assumed a gay expression:

'For Heaven's sake, tell me what it's all about, Lucile, I'm dying of curiosity.'

'Nothing,' said Lucile. 'nothing, absolutely nothing, that's what makes it so terrible.'

'Terrible,' echoed Antoine.
He was completely dishevelled, youthful, splendid, and Johnny felt a moment of violent desire.

But Diane arrived. She was angry and anger was becoming to her. Her superb bearing, her celebrated green eyes, her extreme slenderness made her a spirited war horse.

'What can you have found to say to each other that is so funny?' she asked in a voice tinged with doubt and indulgence, but especially doubt.

'Us? Oh, nothing,' said Antoine innocently. And the 'us' that she had never obtained from him for any project, for any memory, brought Diane's fury to a climax.

'Then stop conducting yourselves in such a vulgar manner. If you aren't amusing, at least be polite.'

There was a short silence. Lucile thought it normal that Diane scolded her lover, but the use of the plural seemed slightly excessive to her.

'You're losing your head,' she said. 'It's not your business to forbid me to laugh.'

'Nor me,' said Antoine slowly.

'Excuse me, I'm tired,' said Diane. 'Good night. Could you escort me?' she asked poor Charles, who had approached them.

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