La Chamade (6 page)

'As you know, Lucile, I must go to New York soon. Would you come with me?'

Charles' voice was quiet and intimated that she would agree. He knew that Lucile was fond of travelling. She did not answer at once.

'Why not? Will you be there long?'

'Impossible,' she thought, 'Impossible. How can I do without Antoine for ten days? Charles' conditions came too early or too late and, in any case, too cruelly. I'd give all the cities in the world for Antoine's room. I have no other journeys, no other discoveries to make except those we can make together in the dark.' And as a precise detail returned suddenly in her memory, she was troubled and turned her head toward the street.

'Ten or fifteen days,' said Charles. 'New York is charming in the spring. You've only been there in mid-winter. I remember the cold was so intense that your nose turned blue; eyes staring, hair bristling with indignation, you glared at me as though it were my fault.'

He began to laugh, his voice soft, melancholic. Lucile remembered the abominable cold of that winter, but nothing else. She had not a single fond memory. Simply racing wildly in a taxi from the hotel to a restaurant. The golden memories belonged to Charles, always to Charles, and suddenly she felt ashamed. Sentimentally too, she depended on Charles and that was more embarrassing than the rest. She did not wish to hurt him, she did not wish to lie to him, she did not wish to tell him the truth, she simply wished to let him guess it, without explanations. Yes, she was really the perfect coward.

They met two or three times a week. Antoine displayed a tremendous imagination in finding excuses for leaving his office, and Lucile did not tell Charles how she spent her days, she never had. They joined each other in the little room and, trembling, they sank into darkness, they scarcely had time to speak. They knew nothing about one another, but their bodies showed recognition with such fervour, respect, such a feeling for the absolute, that their memories disconnected under the impact; on parting, they searched desperately, and in vain, for one among the words whispered in the dark, for a single clear recollection. They always parted like two somnambulists, almost distracted, and it was only an hour or two later that they began to await the only reality, the only vital point in their lives: the moment when they would meet again. All the rest was dead. This expectancy was the only thing that made them aware of time, the weather, and of other people, because it transformed these things into obstacles. Lucile would make sure, six times at least, before meeting Antoine, that the car keys were in her handbag, remind herself a dozen times which streets led to Antoine's house, look a dozen times at the alarm clock that she had always so proudly disdained. Antoine reminded his secretary that he had an urgent appointment at four, and left the office a quarter of an hour before, although his room was two minutes away. And they arrived each time a little pale, Lucile, because she had thought that a bottleneck in the traffic would prevent her from arriving on time, and Antoine, because one of his firm's authors had stopped by and kept him an unwilling prisoner. Sighing, they clung to each other, as though they had escaped a great danger which, at worst, would have meant a five minutes' delay.

During an embrace, they said 'I love you', but never otherwise. Sometimes Antoine bent over Lucile and, as she caught her breath, her eyes closed, he outlined her face, her shoulder with his hand, saying tenderly: 'You make me very happy, you know.' She smiled. He talked about her smile, told her how annoyed he was when she smiled, her eyes wide, at someone else. 'Your smile is too disarming,' he said, 'it worries me.'— 'But I'm often thinking of other things, it's just a way of being agreeable. I don't look disarming, I look vacant.'—'Heaven knows what you think about,' he continued, 'At dinner parties you always seem to be brooding over a secret or some bad blow.'—'Antoine, I do brood over a secret...' and she laid her head on his shoulder, whispering: 'Don't brood over things too much, Antoine, all is well.' He would become silent, he dared not tell her what was unceasingly on his mind, what kept him awake during those long nights with Diane, who also pretended to be asleep. 'This can't go on, really it can't go on, why isn't Lucile with me?' This unconcern, Lucile's capacity to waive all problems made him uneasy. She refused to talk about Charles, she refused any plans. Had she, perhaps, bound herself to Blassans-Lignières for selfish reasons? But she seemed so free, avoided so naturally any discussion the moment it turned to money (and Heaven knows that nobody talks so much about money as those who have too much of it...) that he could not imagine her doing anything calculated. She said: 'I have a taste for facility.' She said: 'I hate the instinct of possession.' She also said: 'I was lonely without you.' And he found all this difficult to conciliate. He waited, confused, for something to happen, for someone to ferret them out, for fate to take over his responsibilities as a man, and he despised himself.

Antoine knew that he was indolent, sensual but moral. No woman had ever attracted him as much as Lucile, but he had had numerous love affairs and remorse had turned his rather insignificant liaison with Sarah into a tragic love story. He knew himself to be easy prey for inner conflicts. In fact, he had almost as great a capacity for misfortune as for happiness, and for him Lucile could be only disconcerting. He did not understand that she had only loved once, ten years earlier, had forgotten all about it and considered their present love as a marvellous, unexpected, fragile and unhoped for gift in which she superstitiously refused to foresee the consequences. She liked waiting for him, longing for him, she liked their concealment as much as she would have liked to live with him openly. Every moment of happiness was sufficient in itself. And if, for the last two months, she was surprised at her susceptibility to adolescent love songs, she never felt personally concerned by the 'you and only you, forever and ever' which was the usual theme. As her only form of morality was the avoidance of self-deceit, she was naturally drawn into a profound, but involuntary cynicism. It seemed as though the fact of being able to sort out one's feelings automatically led to this cynicism, while cheats and liars could remain wildly romantic all their lives. She loved Antoine, but cared for Charles, Antoine made her happy and she did not make Charles unhappy. As she valued both men, she was not sufficiently interested in herself to be ashamed of allowing herself to be shared by both. Her total lack of self-sufficiency made her ruthless; in short, she was happy.

It was quite by chance that she discovered that she could suffer.

She had not seen Antoine for three days, by chance they had been invited to different theatres and dinners. She was to meet him at four o'clock and she arrived on time, surprised not to find him at his door. For the first time, she used the key he had given her. The room was empty and the blinds open. For a moment she thought she had made a mistake, as she had always arrived to a darkened room, Antoine lighting only a lamp that stood on the floor, one that lit up the bed and a corner of the ceiling. Amused, she walked about the room she knew so well and yet so little, reading the titles of books on the shelves, picking up a tie on the carpet, examining a charmingly absurd 1900 painting that she had never noticed. For the first time, she imagined her lover as a young bachelor, a fitful worker of modest means. Who was Antoine? Where did he come from, who were his parents? What had been his childhood? She sat down on the bed, then suddenly nervous, rose and went to the window. She felt that she was in a stranger's room, her presence there indiscreet. And above all, and for the first time, she thought of Antoine as 'someone else', and that what she knew of his hands, mouth and eyes did not necessarily make him a permanent accomplice. Where was he? It was a quarter past four, she had not seen him for three days and the telephone did not ring. She wandered about the sad room from door to window, picked up a book, could not understand a word of what she read, put it down again. Time went by, he should have telephoned if something had detained him. She took up the receiver, hoping the line was out of order, but it was not. And if he had not felt like keeping the appointment? The idea froze her motionless in the middle of the room, attentive, like certain mortally wounded soldiers seen in old prints. A storm broke loose in her memory: what she had taken for disapproval in Antoine's eyes was boredom; his hesitation when she had once asked him what worried him was not the fear of being contrary, but the fear of making her suffer by admitting the truth: he was no longer in love with her. A dozen of Antoine's attitudes passed through her mind in a flash and she put them all down to indifference. She said aloud: 'Well, that's that. He doesn't love me any longer.' She said the words in a quiet voice, and immediately the sentence returned to her like a whiplash, her hand went to her throat as if in defence: 'But what am I to do with myself if Antoine doesn't love me anymore?' Her life seemed drained of blood, bereft of warmth and gaiety, like the petrified, cinder-covered plain in Peru, a photograph of which had recently appeared in
Match
, much to Antoine's rather morbid admiration.

She remained standing, shaking so violently that she came to her own rescue: 'Come, come,' she said aloud, 'come now ...' She spoke to her heart and body as though they were a team of terrified horses, then lay down on the bed, forcing herself to breathe quietly. In vain. A kind of panic, of despair, crumpled her; both hands grasping her shoulders, face buried in the pillow, she heard her own' voice moan: 'Antoine, Antoine ...' and with the unbearable pain came an equally great amazement. 'You're crazy,' she said to herself, 'crazy.' But someone who was not herself and who, for once, was stronger than she, cried out: 'And Antoine's golden eyes, and Antoine's voice, what can you do without Antoine, you fool?' A church clock struck five and she imagined that some cruel, mad god was tolling the hour for her. A second later, Antoine appeared. He paused when he saw her expression, then dropped down beside her on the bed. He was mad with happiness, he covered her face, her hair with gentle kisses; he explained, he showered insults on his publisher who had detained him at the office for an hour. Whispering his name in a broken voice she clung to him, then sitting up, turned away.

'Antoine,' she said, 'I love you for keeps.'

'That's good,' he answered, 'Because I love you, too.'

They kept a thoughtful silence. Then she turned to him, and she looked gravely at the face she loved as it drew close to hers.

CHAPTER TEN

When she left him, two hours later, Lucile thought her anxiety had been accidental. Brimming over with joy, exhausted by love, empty-headed, she believed that those thirty minutes of panic were due to a nervous rather than to a sentimental cause and decided to sleep more, drink less, etc. Being so accustomed to an intensely solitary life, she could not easily admit that something or someone might be indispensable to her. It seemed, in fact, even more monstrous than desirable. Her car moved quietly along the Seine, she drove mechanically, admiring the aspect of the shimmering river on one of the first fine spring evenings. She smiled faintly. 'What had come over her? At her age. With the life she led. After all, she was a kept woman, a cynic.' The idea made her laugh, and the man in the car next to hers smiled at her. She returned his smile absently and went on musing. 'Yes, who was she?' She was completely indifferent as to how she appeared in other people's eyes and, until now, in her own. She no longer saw herself, was that bad? Was it a sign of mental debasement? She had been an avid reader when younger, before discovering that she was happy. She had asked herself many questions before becoming this well-fed and svelte animal that avoided all complications with such agility. Because of the strange line of life in her palm, she had always nonchalantly admitted that she would die young, she even counted on it. But if she lived to be old? She tried to imagine herself aged, poor, deserted by Charles, labouring at some menial trade. She tried to frighten herself, but she did not succeed. At the same time, she thought that no matter what happened, the Seine would always look as luminous and golden near the Grand Palais and that was the most important thing. She did not need this purring car, or her coat from Laroche to live, of that she was certain. Charles, too, was certain, which made him unhappy. And, as happened every time she left Antoine, she felt a surge of tenderness for Blassans-Lignières and a deep desire to make him happy.

She did not know that Charles, who usually found her at home when he returned from his office, was pacing up and down his room, as she had done three hours earlier, asking himself the same question: 'And if she never came back?' She did not know it and she would never know, for when she came in, he was lying on his bed, placidly reading
Le
Monde.
He always recognised the sound of her car. 'Had a nice day?' he inquired, and she kissed him softly. She liked the scent he used, she must remember to buy some for Antoine.

'Very nice,' she answered, 'but I was afraid of...'

She stopped. She wanted to talk to Charles, to tell him everything, 'I was afraid of losing Antoine, afraid of loving him.' But she could not, there was no one to whom she could talk about her strange afternoon. She had never savoured confidences and this made her feel a little sad.

'I was afraid of missing,' she added hastily.

'Missing what?'

'Life. What others call life. Charles, must one really love, I mean, have an unfortunate love affair, must one work, do things in order to exist?'

'It's not indispensable,' he said (he lowered his eyes), 'as long as you are happy.'

'And that seems enough to you?'

'By far.' And something in his voice, a strange, far away melancholy tore Lucile's heart.

She sat on the bed, reached out her hand, caressed his weary face. Charles closed his eyes, smiled faintly. She felt understanding, good, capable of charity, but she did not admit that she owed these noble sentiments to Antoine's arrival, and that if he had not come, she would have detested Charles. When one is happy it is easy to accept others as accomplices in this happiness, and it is only after they have gone that one knows them to have been but insignificant witnesses.

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