The Arrow of Gold
Part 3 out of 6
pearl as it dropped from your lips. At least not before me."
She glanced down deliberately and said, "This is better. But I
don't see any of them on the floor."
"It's you who are horrible in the implications of your language.
Don't see any on the floor! Haven't I caught up and treasured them
all in my heart? I am not the animal from which sausages are
She looked at me suavely and then with the sweetest possible smile
breathed out the word: "No."
And we both laughed very loud. O! days of innocence! On this
occasion we parted from each other on a light-hearted note. But
already I had acquired the conviction that there was nothing more
lovable in the world than that woman; nothing more life-giving,
inspiring, and illuminating than the emanation of her charm. I
meant it absolutely--not excepting the light of the sun.
From this there was only one step further to take. The step into a
conscious surrender; the open perception that this charm, warming
like a flame, was also all-revealing like a great light; giving new
depth to shades, new brilliance to colours, an amazing vividness to
all sensations and vitality to all thoughts: so that all that had
been lived before seemed to have been lived in a drab world and
with a languid pulse.
A great revelation this. I don't mean to say it was soul-shaking.
The soul was already a captive before doubt, anguish, or dismay
could touch its surrender and its exaltation. But all the same the
revelation turned many things into dust; and, amongst others, the
sense of the careless freedom of my life. If that life ever had
any purpose or any aim outside itself I would have said that it
threw a shadow across its path. But it hadn't. There had been no
path. But there was a shadow, the inseparable companion of all
light. No illumination can sweep all mystery out of the world.
After the departed darkness the shadows remain, more mysterious
because as if more enduring; and one feels a dread of them from
which one was free before. What if they were to be victorious at
the last? They, or what perhaps lurks in them: fear, deception,
desire, disillusion--all silent at first before the song of
triumphant love vibrating in the light. Yes. Silent. Even desire
itself! All silent. But not for long!
This was, I think, before the third expedition. Yes, it must have
been the third, for I remember that it was boldly planned and that
it was carried out without a hitch. The tentative period was over;
all our arrangements had been perfected. There was, so to speak,
always an unfailing smoke on the hill and an unfailing lantern on
the shore. Our friends, mostly bought for hard cash and therefore
valuable, had acquired confidence in us. This, they seemed to say,
is no unfathomable roguery of penniless adventurers. This is but
the reckless enterprise of men of wealth and sense and needn't be
inquired into. The young caballero has got real gold pieces in the
belt he wears next his skin; and the man with the heavy moustaches
and unbelieving eyes is indeed very much of a man. They gave to
Dominic all their respect and to me a great show of deference; for
I had all the money, while they thought that Dominic had all the
sense. That judgment was not exactly correct. I had my share of
judgment and audacity which surprises me now that the years have
chilled the blood without dimming the memory. I remember going
about the business with light-hearted, clear-headed recklessness
which, according as its decisions were sudden or considered, made
Dominic draw his breath through his clenched teeth, or look hard at
me before he gave me either a slight nod of assent or a sarcastic
"Oh, certainly"--just as the humour of the moment prompted him.
One night as we were lying on a bit of dry sand under the lee of a
rock, side by side, watching the light of our little vessel dancing
away at sea in the windy distance, Dominic spoke suddenly to me.
"I suppose Alphonso and Carlos, Carlos and Alphonso, they are
nothing to you, together or separately?"
I said: "Dominic, if they were both to vanish from the earth
together or separately it would make no difference to my feelings."
He remarked: "Just so. A man mourns only for his friends. I
suppose they are no more friends to you than they are to me. Those
Carlists make a great consumption of cartridges. That is well.
But why should we do all those mad things that you will insist on
us doing till my hair," he pursued with grave, mocking
exaggeration, "till my hair tries to stand up on my head? and all
for that Carlos, let God and the devil each guard his own, for that
Majesty as they call him, but after all a man like another and--no
"Yes, why?" I murmured, feeling my body nestled at ease in the
It was very dark under the overhanging rock on that night of clouds
and of wind that died and rose and died again. Dominic's voice was
heard speaking low between the short gusts.
"Friend of the Senora, eh?"
"That's what the world says, Dominic."
"Half of what the world says are lies," he pronounced dogmatically.
"For all his majesty he may be a good enough man. Yet he is only a
king in the mountains and to-morrow he may be no more than you.
Still a woman like that--one, somehow, would grudge her to a better
king. She ought to be set up on a high pillar for people that walk
on the ground to raise their eyes up to. But you are otherwise,
you gentlemen. You, for instance, Monsieur, you wouldn't want to
see her set up on a pillar."
"That sort of thing, Dominic," I said, "that sort of thing, you
understand me, ought to be done early."
He was silent for a time. And then his manly voice was heard in
the shadow of the rock.
"I see well enough what you mean. I spoke of the multitude, that
only raise their eyes. But for kings and suchlike that is not
enough. Well, no heart need despair; for there is not a woman that
wouldn't at some time or other get down from her pillar for no
bigger bribe perhaps than just a flower which is fresh to-day and
withered to-morrow. And then, what's the good of asking how long
any woman has been up there? There is a true saying that lips that
have been kissed do not lose their freshness."
I don't know what answer I could have made. I imagine Dominic
thought himself unanswerable. As a matter of fact, before I could
speak, a voice came to us down the face of the rock crying
secretly, "Ola, down there! All is safe ashore."
It was the boy who used to hang about the stable of a muleteer's
inn in a little shallow valley with a shallow little stream in it,
and where we had been hiding most of the day before coming down to
the shore. We both started to our feet and Dominic said, "A good
boy that. You didn't hear him either come or go above our heads.
Don't reward him with more than one peseta, Senor, whatever he
does. If you were to give him two he would go mad at the sight of
so much wealth and throw up his job at the Fonda, where he is so
useful to run errands, in that way he has of skimming along the
paths without displacing a stone."
Meantime he was busying himself with striking a fire to set alight
a small heap of dry sticks he had made ready beforehand on that
spot which in all the circuit of the Bay was perfectly screened
from observation from the land side.
The clear flame shooting up revealed him in the black cloak with a
hood of a Mediterranean sailor. His eyes watched the dancing dim
light to seaward. And he talked the while.
"The only fault you have, Senor, is being too generous with your
money. In this world you must give sparingly. The only things you
may deal out without counting, in this life of ours which is but a
little fight and a little love, is blows to your enemy and kisses
to a woman. . . . Ah! here they are coming in."
I noticed the dancing light in the dark west much closer to the
shore now. Its motion had altered. It swayed slowly as it ran
towards us, and, suddenly, the darker shadow as of a great pointed
wing appeared gliding in the night. Under it a human voice shouted
"Bueno," muttered Dominic. From some receptacle I didn't see he
poured a lot of water on the blaze, like a magician at the end of a
successful incantation that had called out a shadow and a voice
from the immense space of the sea. And his hooded figure vanished
from my sight in a great hiss and the warm feel of ascending steam.
"That's all over," he said, "and now we go back for more work, more
toil, more trouble, more exertion with hands and feet, for hours
and hours. And all the time the head turned over the shoulder,
We were climbing a precipitous path sufficiently dangerous in the
dark, Dominic, more familiar with it, going first and I scrambling
close behind in order that I might grab at his cloak if I chanced
to slip or miss my footing. I remonstrated against this
arrangement as we stopped to rest. I had no doubt I would grab at
his cloak if I felt myself falling. I couldn't help doing that.
But I would probably only drag him down with me.
With one hand grasping a shadowy bush above his head he growled
that all this was possible, but that it was all in the bargain, and
urged me onwards.
When we got on to the level that man whose even breathing no
exertion, no danger, no fear or anger could disturb, remarked as we
strode side by side:
"I will say this for us, that we are carrying out all this deadly
foolishness as conscientiously as though the eyes of the Senora
were on us all the time. And as to risk, I suppose we take more
than she would approve of, I fancy, if she ever gave a moment's
thought to us out here. Now, for instance, in the next half hour,
we may come any moment on three carabineers who would let off their
pieces without asking questions. Even your way of flinging money
about cannot make safety for men set on defying a whole big country
for the sake of--what is it exactly?--the blue eyes, or the white
arms of the Senora."
He kept his voice equably low. It was a lonely spot and but for a
vague shape of a dwarf tree here and there we had only the flying
clouds for company. Very far off a tiny light twinkled a little
way up the seaward shoulder of an invisible mountain. Dominic
"Fancy yourself lying here, on this wild spot, with a leg smashed
by a shot or perhaps with a bullet in your side. It might happen.
A star might fall. I have watched stars falling in scores on clear
nights in the Atlantic. And it was nothing. The flash of a pinch
of gunpowder in your face may be a bigger matter. Yet somehow it's
pleasant as we stumble in the dark to think of our Senora in that
long room with a shiny floor and all that lot of glass at the end,
sitting on that divan, you call it, covered with carpets as if
expecting a king indeed. And very still . . ."
He remembered her--whose image could not be dismissed.
I laid my hand on his shoulder.
"That light on the mountain side flickers exceedingly, Dominic.
Are we in the path?"
He addressed me then in French, which was between us the language
of more formal moments.
"Prenez mon bras, monsieur. Take a firm hold, or I will have you
stumbling again and falling into one of those beastly holes, with a
good chance to crack your head. And there is no need to take
offence. For, speaking with all respect, why should you, and I
with you, be here on this lonely spot, barking our shins in the
dark on the way to a confounded flickering light where there will
be no other supper but a piece of a stale sausage and a draught of
leathery wine out of a stinking skin. Pah!"
I had good hold of his arm. Suddenly he dropped the formal French
and pronounced in his inflexible voice:
"For a pair of white arms, Senor. Bueno."
He could understand.
On our return from that expedition we came gliding into the old
harbour so late that Dominic and I, making for the cafe kept by
Madame Leonore, found it empty of customers, except for two rather
sinister fellows playing cards together at a corner table near the
door. The first thing done by Madame Leonore was to put her hands
on Dominic's shoulders and look at arm's length into the eyes of
that man of audacious deeds and wild stratagems who smiled straight
at her from under his heavy and, at that time, uncurled moustaches.
Indeed we didn't present a neat appearance, our faces unshaven,
with the traces of dried salt sprays on our smarting skins and the
sleeplessness of full forty hours filming our eyes. At least it
was so with me who saw as through a mist Madame Leonore moving with
her mature nonchalant grace, setting before us wine and glasses
with a faint swish of her ample black skirt. Under the elaborate
structure of black hair her jet-black eyes sparkled like good-
humoured stars and even I could see that she was tremendously
excited at having this lawless wanderer Dominic within her reach
and as it were in her power. Presently she sat down by us, touched
lightly Dominic's curly head silvered on the temples (she couldn't
really help it), gazed at me for a while with a quizzical smile,
observed that I looked very tired, and asked Dominic whether for
all that I was likely to sleep soundly to-night.
"I don't know," said Dominic, "He's young. And there is always the
chance of dreams."
"What do you men dream of in those little barques of yours tossing
for months on the water?"
"Mostly of nothing," said Dominic. "But it has happened to me to
dream of furious fights."
"And of furious loves, too, no doubt," she caught him up in a
"No, that's for the waking hours," Dominic drawled, basking
sleepily with his head between his hands in her ardent gaze. "The
waking hours are longer."
"They must be, at sea," she said, never taking her eyes off him.
"But I suppose you do talk of your loves sometimes."
"You may be sure, Madame Leonore," I interjected, noticing the
hoarseness of my voice, "that you at any rate are talked about a
lot at sea."
"I am not so sure of that now. There is that strange lady from the
Prado that you took him to see, Signorino. She went to his head
like a glass of wine into a tender youngster's. He is such a
child, and I suppose that I am another. Shame to confess it, the
other morning I got a friend to look after the cafe for a couple of
hours, wrapped up my head, and walked out there to the other end of
the town. . . . Look at these two sitting up! And I thought they
were so sleepy and tired, the poor fellows!"
She kept our curiosity in suspense for a moment.
"Well, I have seen your marvel, Dominic," she continued in a calm
voice. "She came flying out of the gate on horseback and it would
have been all I would have seen of her if--and this is for you,
Signorino--if she hadn't pulled up in the main alley to wait for a
very good-looking cavalier. He had his moustaches so, and his
teeth were very white when he smiled at her. But his eyes are too
deep in his head for my taste. I didn't like it. It reminded me
of a certain very severe priest who used to come to our village
when I was young; younger even than your marvel, Dominic."
"It was no priest in disguise, Madame Leonore," I said, amused by
her expression of disgust. "That's an American."
"Ah! Un Americano! Well, never mind him. It was her that I went
"What! Walked to the other end of the town to see Dona Rita!"
Dominic addressed her in a low bantering tone. "Why, you were
always telling me you couldn't walk further than the end of the
quay to save your life--or even mine, you said."
"Well, I did; and I walked back again and between the two walks I
had a good look. And you may be sure--that will surprise you both-
-that on the way back--oh, Santa Madre, wasn't it a long way, too--
I wasn't thinking of any man at sea or on shore in that
"No. And you were not thinking of yourself, either, I suppose," I
said. Speaking was a matter of great effort for me, whether I was
too tired or too sleepy, I can't tell. "No, you were not thinking
of yourself. You were thinking of a woman, though."
"Si. As much a woman as any of us that ever breathed in the world.
Yes, of her! Of that very one! You see, we woman are not like you
men, indifferent to each other unless by some exception. Men say
we are always against one another but that's only men's conceit.
What can she be to me? I am not afraid of the big child here," and
she tapped Dominic's forearm on which he rested his head with a
fascinated stare. "With us two it is for life and death, and I am
rather pleased that there is something yet in him that can catch
fire on occasion. I would have thought less of him if he hadn't
been able to get out of hand a little, for something really fine.
As for you, Signorino," she turned on me with an unexpected and
sarcastic sally, "I am not in love with you yet." She changed her
tone from sarcasm to a soft and even dreamy note. "A head like a
gem," went on that woman born in some by-street of Rome, and a
plaything for years of God knows what obscure fates. "Yes,
Dominic! Antica. I haven't been haunted by a face since--since I
was sixteen years old. It was the face of a young cavalier in the
street. He was on horseback, too. He never looked at me, I never
saw him again, and I loved him for--for days and days and days.
That was the sort of face he had. And her face is of the same
sort. She had a man's hat, too, on her head. So high!"
"A man's hat on her head," remarked with profound displeasure
Dominic, to whom this wonder, at least, of all the wonders of the
earth, was apparently unknown.
"Si. And her face has haunted me. Not so long as that other but
more touchingly because I am no longer sixteen and this is a woman.
Yes, I did think of her, I myself was once that age and I, too, had
a face of my own to show to the world, though not so superb. And
I, too, didn't know why I had come into the world any more than she
"And now you know," Dominic growled softly, with his head still
between his hands.
She looked at him for a long time, opened her lips but in the end
only sighed lightly.
"And what do you know of her, you who have seen her so well as to
be haunted by her face?" I asked.
I wouldn't have been surprised if she had answered me with another
sigh. For she seemed only to be thinking of herself and looked not
in my direction. But suddenly she roused up.
"Of her?" she repeated in a louder voice. "Why should I talk of
another woman? And then she is a great lady."
At this I could not repress a smile which she detected at once.
"Isn't she? Well, no, perhaps she isn't; but you may be sure of
one thing, that she is both flesh and shadow more than any one that
I have seen. Keep that well in your mind: She is for no man! She
would be vanishing out of their hands like water that cannot be
I caught my breath. "Inconstant," I whispered.
"I don't say that. Maybe too proud, too wilful, too full of pity.
Signorino, you don't know much about women. And you may learn
something yet or you may not; but what you learn from her you will
"Not to be held," I murmured; and she whom the quayside called
Madame Leonore closed her outstretched hand before my face and
opened it at once to show its emptiness in illustration of her
expressed opinion. Dominic never moved.
I wished good-night to these two and left the cafe for the fresh
air and the dark spaciousness of the quays augmented by all the
width of the old Port where between the trails of light the shadows
of heavy hulls appeared very black, merging their outlines in a
great confusion. I left behind me the end of the Cannebiere, a
wide vista of tall houses and much-lighted pavements losing itself
in the distance with an extinction of both shapes and lights. I
slunk past it with only a side glance and sought the dimness of
quiet streets away from the centre of the usual night gaieties of
the town. The dress I wore was just that of a sailor come ashore
from some coaster, a thick blue woollen shirt or rather a sort of
jumper with a knitted cap like a tam-o'-shanter worn very much on
one side and with a red tuft of wool in the centre. This was even
the reason why I had lingered so long in the cafe. I didn't want
to be recognized in the streets in that costume and still less to
be seen entering the house in the street of the Consuls. At that
hour when the performances were over and all the sensible citizens
in their beds I didn't hesitate to cross the Place of the Opera.
It was dark, the audience had already dispersed. The rare passers-
by I met hurrying on their last affairs of the day paid no
attention to me at all. The street of the Consuls I expected to
find empty, as usual at that time of the night. But as I turned a
corner into it I overtook three people who must have belonged to
the locality. To me, somehow, they appeared strange. Two girls in
dark cloaks walked ahead of a tall man in a top hat. I slowed
down, not wishing to pass them by, the more so that the door of the
house was only a few yards distant. But to my intense surprise
those people stopped at it and the man in the top hat, producing a
latchkey, let his two companions through, followed them, and with a
heavy slam cut himself off from my astonished self and the rest of
In the stupid way people have I stood and meditated on the sight,
before it occurred to me that this was the most useless thing to
do. After waiting a little longer to let the others get away from
the hall I entered in my turn. The small gas-jet seemed not to
have been touched ever since that distant night when Mills and I
trod the black-and-white marble hall for the first time on the
heels of Captain Blunt--who lived by his sword. And in the dimness
and solitude which kept no more trace of the three strangers than
if they had been the merest ghosts I seemed to hear the ghostly
murmur, "Americain, Catholique et gentilhomne. Amer. . . " Unseen
by human eye I ran up the flight of steps swiftly and on the first
floor stepped into my sitting-room of which the door was open . . .
"et gentilhomme." I tugged at the bell pull and somewhere down
below a bell rang as unexpected for Therese as a call from a ghost.
I had no notion whether Therese could hear me. I seemed to
remember that she slept in any bed that happened to be vacant. For
all I knew she might have been asleep in mine. As I had no matches
on me I waited for a while in the dark. The house was perfectly
still. Suddenly without the slightest preliminary sound light fell
into the room and Therese stood in the open door with a candlestick
in her hand.
She had on her peasant brown skirt. The rest of her was concealed
in a black shawl which covered her head, her shoulders, arms, and
elbows completely, down to her waist. The hand holding the candle
protruded from that envelope which the other invisible hand clasped
together under her very chin. And her face looked like a face in a
painting. She said at once:
"You startled me, my young Monsieur."
She addressed me most frequently in that way as though she liked
the very word "young." Her manner was certainly peasant-like with
a sort of plaint in the voice, while the face was that of a serving
Sister in some small and rustic convent.
"I meant to do it," I said. "I am a very bad person."
"The young are always full of fun," she said as if she were
gloating over the idea. "It is very pleasant."
"But you are very brave," I chaffed her, "for you didn't expect a
ring, and after all it might have been the devil who pulled the
"It might have been. But a poor girl like me is not afraid of the
devil. I have a pure heart. I have been to confession last
evening. No. But it might have been an assassin that pulled the
bell ready to kill a poor harmless woman. This is a very lonely
street. What could prevent you to kill me now and then walk out
again free as air?"
While she was talking like this she had lighted the gas and with
the last words she glided through the bedroom door leaving me
thunderstruck at the unexpected character of her thoughts.
I couldn't know that there had been during my absence a case of
atrocious murder which had affected the imagination of the whole
town; and though Therese did not read the papers (which she
imagined to be full of impieties and immoralities invented by
godless men) yet if she spoke at all with her kind, which she must
have done at least in shops, she could not have helped hearing of
it. It seems that for some days people could talk of nothing else.
She returned gliding from the bedroom hermetically sealed in her
black shawl just as she had gone in, with the protruding hand
holding the lighted candle and relieved my perplexity as to her
morbid turn of mind by telling me something of the murder story in
a strange tone of indifference even while referring to its most
horrible features. "That's what carnal sin (peche de chair) leads
to," she commented severely and passed her tongue over her thin
lips. "And then the devil furnishes the occasion."
"I can't imagine the devil inciting me to murder you, Therese," I
said, "and I didn't like that ready way you took me for an example,
as it were. I suppose pretty near every lodger might be a
potential murderer, but I expected to be made an exception."
With the candle held a little below her face, with that face of one
tone and without relief she looked more than ever as though she had
come out of an old, cracked, smoky painting, the subject of which
was altogether beyond human conception. And she only compressed
"All right," I said, making myself comfortable on a sofa after
pulling off my boots. "I suppose any one is liable to commit
murder all of a sudden. Well, have you got many murderers in the
"Yes," she said, "it's pretty good. Upstairs and downstairs," she
sighed. "God sees to it."
"And by the by, who is that grey-headed murderer in a tall hat whom
I saw shepherding two girls into this house?"
She put on a candid air in which one could detect a little of her
"Oh, yes. They are two dancing girls at the Opera, sisters, as
different from each other as I and our poor Rita. But they are
both virtuous and that gentleman, their father, is very severe with
them. Very severe indeed, poor motherless things. And it seems to
be such a sinful occupation."
"I bet you make them pay a big rent, Therese. With an occupation
like that . . ."
She looked at me with eyes of invincible innocence and began to
glide towards the door, so smoothly that the flame of the candle
hardly swayed. "Good-night," she murmured.
Then in the very doorway she turned right round as a marionette
"Oh, you ought to know, my dear young Monsieur, that Mr. Blunt, the
dear handsome man, has arrived from Navarre three days ago or more.
Oh," she added with a priceless air of compunction, "he is such a
And the door shut after her.
That night I passed in a state, mostly open-eyed, I believe, but
always on the border between dreams and waking. The only thing
absolutely absent from it was the feeling of rest. The usual
sufferings of a youth in love had nothing to do with it. I could
leave her, go away from her, remain away from her, without an added
pang or any augmented consciousness of that torturing sentiment of
distance so acute that often it ends by wearing itself out in a few
days. Far or near was all one to me, as if one could never get any
further but also never any nearer to her secret: the state like
that of some strange wild faiths that get hold of mankind with the
cruel mystic grip of unattainable perfection, robbing them of both
liberty and felicity on earth. A faith presents one with some
hope, though. But I had no hope, and not even desire as a thing
outside myself, that would come and go, exhaust or excite. It was
in me just like life was in me; that life of which a popular saying
affirms that "it is sweet." For the general wisdom of mankind will
always stop short on the limit of the formidable.
What is best in a state of brimful, equable suffering is that it
does away with the gnawings of petty sensations. Too far gone to
be sensible to hope and desire I was spared the inferior pangs of
elation and impatience. Hours with her or hours without her were
all alike, all in her possession! But still there are shades and I
will admit that the hours of that morning were perhaps a little
more difficult to get through than the others. I had sent word of
my arrival of course. I had written a note. I had rung the bell.
Therese had appeared herself in her brown garb and as monachal as
ever. I had said to her:
"Have this sent off at once."
She had gazed at the addressed envelope, smiled (I was looking up
at her from my desk), and at last took it up with an effort of
sanctimonious repugnance. But she remained with it in her hand
looking at me as though she were piously gloating over something
she could read in my face.
"Oh, that Rita, that Rita," she murmured. "And you, too! Why are
you trying, you, too, like the others, to stand between her and the
mercy of God? What's the good of all this to you? And you such a
nice, dear, young gentleman. For no earthly good only making all
the kind saints in heaven angry, and our mother ashamed in her
place amongst the blessed."
"Mademoiselle Therese," I said, "vous etes folle."
I believed she was crazy. She was cunning, too. I added an
imperious: "Allez," and with a strange docility she glided out
without another word. All I had to do then was to get dressed and
wait till eleven o'clock.
The hour struck at last. If I could have plunged into a light wave
and been transported instantaneously to Dona Rita's door it would
no doubt have saved me an infinity of pangs too complex for
analysis; but as this was impossible I elected to walk from end to
end of that long way. My emotions and sensations were childlike
and chaotic inasmuch that they were very intense and primitive, and
that I lay very helpless in their unrelaxing grasp. If one could
have kept a record of one's physical sensations it would have been
a fine collection of absurdities and contradictions. Hardly
touching the ground and yet leaden-footed; with a sinking heart and
an excited brain; hot and trembling with a secret faintness, and
yet as firm as a rock and with a sort of indifference to it all, I
did reach the door which was frightfully like any other commonplace
door, but at the same time had a fateful character: a few planks
put together--and an awful symbol; not to be approached without
awe--and yet coming open in the ordinary way to the ring of the
It came open. Oh, yes, very much as usual. But in the ordinary
course of events the first sight in the hall should have been the
back of the ubiquitous, busy, silent maid hurrying off and already
distant. But not at all! She actually waited for me to enter. I
was extremely taken aback and I believe spoke to her for the first
time in my life.
She dropped her dark eyelids over those eyes that ought to have
been lustrous but were not, as if somebody had breathed on them the
first thing in the morning. She was a girl without smiles. She
shut the door after me, and not only did that but in the incredible
idleness of that morning she, who had never a moment to spare,
started helping me off with my overcoat. It was positively
embarrassing from its novelty. While busying herself with those
trifles she murmured without any marked intention:
"Captain Blunt is with Madame."
This didn't exactly surprise me. I knew he had come up to town; I
only happened to have forgotten his existence for the moment. I
looked at the girl also without any particular intention. But she
arrested my movement towards the dining-room door by a low,
hurried, if perfectly unemotional appeal:
That of course was not my name. It served me then as it will serve
for this story. In all sorts of strange places I was alluded to as
"that young gentleman they call Monsieur George." Orders came from
"Monsieur George" to men who nodded knowingly. Events pivoted
about "Monsieur George." I haven't the slightest doubt that in the
dark and tortuous streets of the old Town there were fingers
pointed at my back: there goes "Monsieur George." I had been
introduced discreetly to several considerable persons as "Monsieur
George." I had learned to answer to the name quite naturally; and
to simplify matters I was also "Monsieur George" in the street of
the Consuls and in the Villa on the Prado. I verify believe that
at that time I had the feeling that the name of George really
belonged to me. I waited for what the girl had to say. I had to
wait some time, though during that silence she gave no sign of
distress or agitation. It was for her obviously a moment of
reflection. Her lips were compressed a little in a characteristic,
capable manner. I looked at her with a friendliness I really felt
towards her slight, unattractive, and dependable person.
"Well," I said at last, rather amused by this mental hesitation. I
never took it for anything else. I was sure it was not distrust.
She appreciated men and things and events solely in relation to
Dona Rita's welfare and safety. And as to that I believed myself
above suspicion. At last she spoke.
"Madame is not happy." This information was given to me not
emotionally but as it were officially. It hadn't even a tone of
warning. A mere statement. Without waiting to see the effect she
opened the dining-room door, not to announce my name in the usual
way but to go in and shut it behind her. In that short moment I
heard no voices inside. Not a sound reached me while the door
remained shut; but in a few seconds it came open again and Rose
stood aside to let me pass.
Then I heard something: Dona Rita's voice raised a little on an
impatient note (a very, very rare thing) finishing some phrase of
protest with the words " . . . Of no consequence."
I heard them as I would have heard any other words, for she had
that kind of voice which carries a long distance. But the maid's
statement occupied all my mind. "Madame n'est pas heureuse." It
had a dreadful precision . . . "Not happy . . ." This unhappiness
had almost a concrete form--something resembling a horrid bat. I
was tired, excited, and generally overwrought. My head felt empty.
What were the appearances of unhappiness? I was still naive enough
to associate them with tears, lamentations, extraordinary attitudes
of the body and some sort of facial distortion, all very dreadful
to behold. I didn't know what I should see; but in what I did see
there was nothing startling, at any rate from that nursery point of
view which apparently I had not yet outgrown.
With immense relief the apprehensive child within me beheld Captain
Blunt warming his back at the more distant of the two fireplaces;
and as to Dona Rita there was nothing extraordinary in her attitude
either, except perhaps that her hair was all loose about her
shoulders. I hadn't the slightest doubt they had been riding
together that morning, but she, with her impatience of all costume
(and yet she could dress herself admirably and wore her dresses
triumphantly), had divested herself of her riding habit and sat
cross-legged enfolded in that ample blue robe like a young savage
chieftain in a blanket. It covered her very feet. And before the
normal fixity of her enigmatical eyes the smoke of the cigarette
ascended ceremonially, straight up, in a slender spiral.
"How are you," was the greeting of Captain Blunt with the usual
smile which would have been more amiable if his teeth hadn't been,
just then, clenched quite so tight. How he managed to force his
voice through that shining barrier I could never understand. Dona
Rita tapped the couch engagingly by her side but I sat down instead
in the armchair nearly opposite her, which, I imagine, must have
been just vacated by Blunt. She inquired with that particular
gleam of the eyes in which there was something immemorial and gay:
"I could hug you."
At any time her lips moved very little but in this instance the
intense whisper of these words seemed to form itself right in my
very heart; not as a conveyed sound but as an imparted emotion
vibrating there with an awful intimacy of delight. And yet it left
my heart heavy.
"Oh, yes, for joy," I said bitterly but very low; "for your
Royalist, Legitimist, joy." Then with that trick of very precise
politeness which I must have caught from Mr. Blunt I added:
"I don't want to be embraced--for the King."
And I might have stopped there. But I didn't. With a perversity
which should be forgiven to those who suffer night and day and are
as if drunk with an exalted unhappiness, I went on: "For the sake
of an old cast-off glove; for I suppose a disdained love is not
much more than a soiled, flabby thing that finds itself on a
private rubbish heap because it has missed the fire."
She listened to me unreadable, unmoved, narrowed eyes, closed lips,
slightly flushed face, as if carved six thousand years ago in order
to fix for ever that something secret and obscure which is in all
women. Not the gross immobility of a Sphinx proposing roadside
riddles but the finer immobility, almost sacred, of a fateful
figure seated at the very source of the passions that have moved
men from the dawn of ages.
Captain Blunt, with his elbow on the high mantelpiece, had turned
away a little from us and his attitude expressed excellently the
detachment of a man who does not want to hear. As a matter of
fact, I don't suppose he could have heard. He was too far away,
our voices were too contained. Moreover, he didn't want to hear.
There could be no doubt about it; but she addressed him
"As I was saying to you, Don Juan, I have the greatest difficulty
in getting myself, I won't say understood, but simply believed."
No pose of detachment could avail against the warm waves of that
voice. He had to hear. After a moment he altered his position as
it were reluctantly, to answer her.
"That's a difficulty that women generally have."
"Yet I have always spoken the truth."
"All women speak the truth," said Blunt imperturbably. And this
"Where are the men I have deceived?" she cried.
"Yes, where?" said Blunt in a tone of alacrity as though he had
been ready to go out and look for them outside.
"No! But show me one. I say--where is he?"
He threw his affectation of detachment to the winds, moved his
shoulders slightly, very slightly, made a step nearer to the couch,
and looked down on her with an expression of amused courtesy.
"Oh, I don't know. Probably nowhere. But if such a man could be
found I am certain he would turn out a very stupid person. You
can't be expected to furnish every one who approaches you with a
mind. To expect that would be too much, even from you who know how
to work wonders at such little cost to yourself."
"To myself," she repeated in a loud tone.
"Why this indignation? I am simply taking your word for it."
"Such little cost!" she exclaimed under her breath.
"I mean to your person."
"Oh, yes," she murmured, glanced down, as it were upon herself,
then added very low: "This body."
"Well, it is you," said Blunt with visibly contained irritation.
"You don't pretend it's somebody else's. It can't be. You haven't
borrowed it. . . . It fits you too well," he ended between his
"You take pleasure in tormenting yourself," she remonstrated,
suddenly placated; "and I would be sorry for you if I didn't think
it's the mere revolt of your pride. And you know you are indulging
your pride at my expense. As to the rest of it, as to my living,
acting, working wonders at a little cost. . . . it has all but
killed me morally. Do you hear? Killed."
"Oh, you are not dead yet," he muttered,
"No," she said with gentle patience. "There is still some feeling
left in me; and if it is any satisfaction to you to know it, you
may be certain that I shall be conscious of the last stab."
He remained silent for a while and then with a polite smile and a
movement of the head in my direction he warned her.
"Our audience will get bored."
"I am perfectly aware that Monsieur George is here, and that he has
been breathing a very different atmosphere from what he gets in
this room. Don't you find this room extremely confined?" she asked
The room was very large but it is a fact that I felt oppressed at
that moment. This mysterious quarrel between those two people,
revealing something more close in their intercourse than I had ever
before suspected, made me so profoundly unhappy that I didn't even
attempt to answer. And she continued:
"More space. More air. Give me air, air." She seized the
embroidered edges of her blue robe under her white throat and made
as if to tear them apart, to fling it open on her breast,
recklessly, before our eyes. We both remained perfectly still.
Her hands dropped nervelessly by her side. "I envy you, Monsieur
George. If I am to go under I should prefer to be drowned in the
sea with the wind on my face. What luck, to feel nothing less than
all the world closing over one's head!"
A short silence ensued before Mr. Blunt's drawing-room voice was
heard with playful familiarity.
"I have often asked myself whether you weren't really a very
ambitious person, Dona Rita."
"And I ask myself whether you have any heart." She was looking
straight at him and he gratified her with the usual cold white
flash of his even teeth before he answered.
"Asking yourself? That means that you are really asking me. But
why do it so publicly? I mean it. One single, detached presence
is enough to make a public. One alone. Why not wait till he
returns to those regions of space and air--from which he came."
His particular trick of speaking of any third person as of a lay
figure was exasperating. Yet at the moment I did not know how to
resent it, but, in any case, Dona Rita would not have given me
time. Without a moment's hesitation she cried out:
"I only wish he could take me out there with him."
For a moment Mr. Blunt's face became as still as a mask and then
instead of an angry it assumed an indulgent expression. As to me I
had a rapid vision of Dominic's astonishment, awe, and sarcasm
which was always as tolerant as it is possible for sarcasm to be.
But what a charming, gentle, gay, and fearless companion she would
have made! I believed in her fearlessness in any adventure that
would interest her. It would be a new occasion for me, a new
viewpoint for that faculty of admiration she had awakened in me at
sight--at first sight--before she opened her lips--before she ever
turned her eyes on me. She would have to wear some sort of sailor
costume, a blue woollen shirt open at the throat. . . . Dominic's
hooded cloak would envelop her amply, and her face under the black
hood would have a luminous quality, adolescent charm, and an
enigmatic expression. The confined space of the little vessel's
quarterdeck would lend itself to her cross-legged attitudes, and
the blue sea would balance gently her characteristic immobility
that seemed to hide thoughts as old and profound as itself. As
But the picture I had in my eye, coloured and simple like an
illustration to a nursery-book tale of two venturesome children's
escapade, was what fascinated me most. Indeed I felt that we two
were like children under the gaze of a man of the world--who lived
by his sword. And I said recklessly:
"Yes, you ought to come along with us for a trip. You would see a
lot of things for yourself."
Mr. Blunt's expression had grown even more indulgent if that were
possible. Yet there was something ineradicably ambiguous about
that man. I did not like the indefinable tone in which he
"You are perfectly reckless in what you say, Dona Rita. It has
become a habit with you of late."
"While with you reserve is a second nature, Don Juan."
This was uttered with the gentlest, almost tender, irony. Mr.
Blunt waited a while before he said:
"Certainly. . . . Would you have liked me to be otherwise?"
She extended her hand to him on a sudden impulse.
"Forgive me! I may have been unjust, and you may only have been
loyal. The falseness is not in us. The fault is in life itself, I
suppose. I have been always frank with you."
"And I obedient," he said, bowing low over her hand. He turned
away, paused to look at me for some time and finally gave me the
correct sort of nod. But he said nothing and went out, or rather
lounged out with his worldly manner of perfect ease under all
conceivable circumstances. With her head lowered Dona Rita watched
him till he actually shut the door behind him. I was facing her
and only heard the door close.
"Don't stare at me," were the first words she said.
It was difficult to obey that request. I didn't know exactly where
to look, while I sat facing her. So I got up, vaguely full of
goodwill, prepared even to move off as far as the window, when she
"Don't turn your back on me."
I chose to understand it symbolically.
"You know very well I could never do that. I couldn't. Not even
if I wanted to." And I added: "It's too late now."
"Well, then, sit down. Sit down on this couch."
I sat down on the couch. Unwillingly? Yes. I was at that stage
when all her words, all her gestures, all her silences were a heavy
trial to me, put a stress on my resolution, on that fidelity to
myself and to her which lay like a leaden weight on my untried
heart. But I didn't sit down very far away from her, though that
soft and billowy couch was big enough, God knows! No, not very far
from her. Self-control, dignity, hopelessness itself, have their
limits. The halo of her tawny hair stirred as I let myself drop by
her side. Whereupon she flung one arm round my neck, leaned her
temple against my shoulder and began to sob; but that I could only
guess from her slight, convulsive movements because in our relative
positions I could only see the mass of her tawny hair brushed back,
yet with a halo of escaped hair which as I bent my head over her
tickled my lips, my cheek, in a maddening manner.
We sat like two venturesome children in an illustration to a tale,
scared by their adventure. But not for long. As I instinctively,
yet timidly, sought for her other hand I felt a tear strike the
back of mine, big and heavy as if fallen from a great height. It
was too much for me. I must have given a nervous start. At once I
heard a murmur: "You had better go away now."
I withdrew myself gently from under the light weight of her head,
from this unspeakable bliss and inconceivable misery, and had the
absurd impression of leaving her suspended in the air. And I moved
away on tiptoe.
Like an inspired blind man led by Providence I found my way out of
the room but really I saw nothing, till in the hall the maid
appeared by enchantment before me holding up my overcoat. I let
her help me into it. And then (again as if by enchantment) she had
my hat in her hand.
"No. Madame isn't happy," I whispered to her distractedly.
She let me take my hat out of her hand and while I was putting it
on my head I heard an austere whisper:
"Madame should listen to her heart."
Austere is not the word; it was almost freezing, this unexpected,
dispassionate rustle of words. I had to repress a shudder, and as
coldly as herself I murmured:
"She has done that once too often."
Rose was standing very close to me and I caught distinctly the note
of scorn in her indulgent compassion.
"Oh, that! . . . Madame is like a child." It was impossible to get
the bearing of that utterance from that girl who, as Dona Rita
herself had told me, was the most taciturn of human beings; and yet
of all human beings the one nearest to herself. I seized her head
in my hands and turning up her face I looked straight down into her
black eyes which should have been lustrous. Like a piece of glass
breathed upon they reflected no light, revealed no depths, and
under my ardent gaze remained tarnished, misty, unconscious.
"Will Monsieur kindly let me go. Monsieur shouldn't play the
child, either." (I let her go.) "Madame could have the world at
her feet. Indeed she has it there only she doesn't care for it."
How talkative she was, this maid with unsealed lips! For some
reason or other this last statement of hers brought me immense
"Yes?" I whispered breathlessly.
"Yes! But in that case what's the use of living in fear and
torment?" she went on, revealing a little more of herself to my
astonishment. She opened the door for me and added:
"Those that don't care to stoop ought at least make themselves
I turned in the very doorway: "There is something which prevents
that?" I suggested.
"To be sure there is. Bonjour, Monsieur."
"Such a charming lady in a grey silk dress and a hand as white as
snow. She looked at me through such funny glasses on the end of a
long handle. A very great lady but her voice was as kind as the
voice of a saint. I have never seen anything like that. She made
me feel so timid."
The voice uttering these words was the voice of Therese and I
looked at her from a bed draped heavily in brown silk curtains
fantastically looped up from ceiling to floor. The glow of a
sunshiny day was toned down by closed jalousies to a mere
transparency of darkness. In this thin medium Therese's form
appeared flat, without detail, as if cut out of black paper. It
glided towards the window and with a click and a scrape let in the
full flood of light which smote my aching eyeballs painfully.
In truth all that night had been the abomination of desolation to
me. After wrestling with my thoughts, if the acute consciousness
of a woman's existence may be called a thought, I had apparently
dropped off to sleep only to go on wrestling with a nightmare, a
senseless and terrifying dream of being in bonds which, even after
waking, made me feel powerless in all my limbs. I lay still,
suffering acutely from a renewed sense of existence, unable to lift
an arm, and wondering why I was not at sea, how long I had slept,
how long Therese had been talking before her voice had reached me
in that purgatory of hopeless longing and unanswerable questions to
which I was condemned.
It was Therese's habit to begin talking directly she entered the
room with the tray of morning coffee. This was her method for
waking me up. I generally regained the consciousness of the
external world on some pious phrase asserting the spiritual comfort
of early mass, or on angry lamentations about the unconscionable
rapacity of the dealers in fish and vegetables; for after mass it
was Therese's practice to do the marketing for the house. As a
matter of fact the necessity of having to pay, to actually give
money to people, infuriated the pious Therese. But the matter of
this morning's speech was so extraordinary that it might have been
the prolongation of a nightmare: a man in bonds having to listen
to weird and unaccountable speeches against which, he doesn't know
why, his very soul revolts.
In sober truth my soul remained in revolt though I was convinced
that I was no longer dreaming. I watched Therese coming away from
the window with that helpless dread a man bound hand and foot may
be excused to feel. For in such a situation even the absurd may
appear ominous. She came up close to the bed and folding her hands
meekly in front of her turned her eyes up to the ceiling.
"If I had been her daughter she couldn't have spoken more softly to
me," she said sentimentally.
I made a great effort to speak.
"Mademoiselle Therese, you are raving."
"She addressed me as Mademoiselle, too, so nicely. I was struck
with veneration for her white hair but her face, believe me, my
dear young Monsieur, has not so many wrinkles as mine."
She compressed her lips with an angry glance at me as if I could
help her wrinkles, then she sighed.
"God sends wrinkles, but what is our face?" she digressed in a tone
of great humility. "We shall have glorious faces in Paradise. But
meantime God has permitted me to preserve a smooth heart."
"Are you going to keep on like this much longer?" I fairly shouted
at her. "What are you talking about?"
"I am talking about the sweet old lady who came in a carriage. Not
a fiacre. I can tell a fiacre. In a little carriage shut in with
glass all in front. I suppose she is very rich. The carriage was
very shiny outside and all beautiful grey stuff inside. I opened
the door to her myself. She got out slowly like a queen. I was
struck all of a heap. Such a shiny beautiful little carriage.
There were blue silk tassels inside, beautiful silk tassels."
Obviously Therese had been very much impressed by a brougham,
though she didn't know the name for it. Of all the town she knew
nothing but the streets which led to a neighbouring church
frequented only by the poorer classes and the humble quarter
around, where she did her marketing. Besides, she was accustomed
to glide along the walls with her eyes cast down; for her natural
boldness would never show itself through that nun-like mien except
when bargaining, if only on a matter of threepence. Such a turn-
out had never been presented to her notice before. The traffic in
the street of the Consuls was mostly pedestrian and far from
fashionable. And anyhow Therese never looked out of the window.
She lurked in the depths of the house like some kind of spider that
shuns attention. She used to dart at one from some dark recesses
which I never explored.
Yet it seemed to me that she exaggerated her raptures for some
reason or other. With her it was very difficult to distinguish
between craft and innocence.
"Do you mean to say," I asked suspiciously, "that an old lady wants
to hire an apartment here? I hope you told her there was no room,
because, you know, this house is not exactly the thing for
venerable old ladies."
"Don't make me angry, my dear young Monsieur. I have been to
confession this morning. Aren't you comfortable? Isn't the house
appointed richly enough for anybody?"
That girl with a peasant-nun's face had never seen the inside of a
house other than some half-ruined caserio in her native hills.
I pointed out to her that this was not a matter of splendour or
comfort but of "convenances." She pricked up her ears at that word
which probably she had never heard before; but with woman's uncanny
intuition I believe she understood perfectly what I meant. Her air
of saintly patience became so pronounced that with my own poor
intuition I perceived that she was raging at me inwardly. Her
weather-tanned complexion, already affected by her confined life,
took on an extraordinary clayey aspect which reminded me of a
strange head painted by El Greco which my friend Prax had hung on
one of his walls and used to rail at; yet not without a certain
Therese, with her hands still meekly folded about her waist, had
mastered the feelings of anger so unbecoming to a person whose sins
had been absolved only about three hours before, and asked me with
an insinuating softness whether she wasn't an honest girl enough to
look after any old lady belonging to a world which after all was
sinful. She reminded me that she had kept house ever since she was
"so high" for her uncle the priest: a man well-known for his
saintliness in a large district extending even beyond Pampeluna.
The character of a house depended upon the person who ruled it.
She didn't know what impenitent wretches had been breathing within
these walls in the time of that godless and wicked man who had
planted every seed of perdition in "our Rita's" ill-disposed heart.
But he was dead and she, Therese, knew for certain that wickedness
perished utterly, because of God's anger (la colere du bon Dieu).
She would have no hesitation in receiving a bishop, if need be,
since "our, Rita," with her poor, wretched, unbelieving heart, had
nothing more to do with the house.
All this came out of her like an unctuous trickle of some acrid
oil. The low, voluble delivery was enough by itself to compel my
"You think you know your sister's heart," I asked.
She made small eyes at me to discover if I was angry. She seemed
to have an invincible faith in the virtuous dispositions of young
men. And as I had spoken in measured tones and hadn't got red in
the face she let herself go.
"Black, my dear young Monsieur. Black. I always knew it. Uncle,
poor saintly man, was too holy to take notice of anything. He was
too busy with his thoughts to listen to anything I had to say to
him. For instance as to her shamelessness. She was always ready
to run half naked about the hills. . . "
"Yes. After your goats. All day long. Why didn't you mend her
"Oh, you know about the goats. My dear young Monsieur, I could
never tell when she would fling over her pretended sweetness and
put her tongue out at me. Did she tell you about a boy, the son of
pious and rich parents, whom she tried to lead astray into the
wildness of thoughts like her own, till the poor dear child drove
her off because she outraged his modesty? I saw him often with his
parents at Sunday mass. The grace of God preserved him and made
him quite a gentleman in Paris. Perhaps it will touch Rita's
heart, too, some day. But she was awful then. When I wouldn't
listen to her complaints she would say: 'All right, sister, I
would just as soon go clothed in rain and wind.' And such a bag of
bones, too, like the picture of a devil's imp. Ah, my dear young
Monsieur, you don't know how wicked her heart is. You aren't bad
enough for that yourself. I don't believe you are evil at all in
your innocent little heart. I never heard you jeer at holy things.
You are only thoughtless. For instance, I have never seen you make
the sign of the cross in the morning. Why don't you make a
practice of crossing yourself directly you open your eyes. It's a
very good thing. It keeps Satan off for the day."
She proffered that advice in a most matter-of-fact tone as if it
were a precaution against a cold, compressed her lips, then
returning to her fixed idea, "But the house is mine," she insisted
very quietly with an accent which made me feel that Satan himself
would never manage to tear it out of her hands.
"And so I told the great lady in grey. I told her that my sister
had given it to me and that surely God would not let her take it
"You told that grey-headed lady, an utter stranger! You are
getting more crazy every day. You have neither good sense nor good
feeling, Mademoiselle Therese, let me tell you. Do you talk about
your sister to the butcher and the greengrocer, too? A downright
savage would have more restraint. What's your object? What do you
expect from it? What pleasure do you get from it? Do you think
you please God by abusing your sister? What do you think you are?"
"A poor lone girl amongst a lot of wicked people. Do you think I
wanted to go forth amongst those abominations? it's that poor
sinful Rita that wouldn't let me be where I was, serving a holy
man, next door to a church, and sure of my share of Paradise. I
simply obeyed my uncle. It's he who told me to go forth and
attempt to save her soul, bring her back to us, to a virtuous life.
But what would be the good of that? She is given over to worldly,
carnal thoughts. Of course we are a good family and my uncle is a
great man in the country, but where is the reputable farmer or God-
fearing man of that kind that would dare to bring such a girl into
his house to his mother and sisters. No, let her give her ill-
gotten wealth up to the deserving and devote the rest of her life
She uttered these righteous reflections and presented this
programme for the salvation of her sister's soul in a reasonable
convinced tone which was enough to give goose flesh to one all
"Mademoiselle Therese," I said, "you are nothing less than a
She received that true expression of my opinion as though I had
given her a sweet of a particularly delicious kind. She liked to
be abused. It pleased her to be called names. I did let her have
that satisfaction to her heart's content. At last I stopped
because I could do no more, unless I got out of bed to beat her. I
have a vague notion that she would have liked that, too, but I
didn't try. After I had stopped she waited a little before she
raised her downcast eyes.
"You are a dear, ignorant, flighty young gentleman," she said.
"Nobody can tell what a cross my sister is to me except the good
priest in the church where I go every day."
"And the mysterious lady in grey," I suggested sarcastically.
"Such a person might have guessed it," answered Therese, seriously,
"but I told her nothing except that this house had been given me in
full property by our Rita. And I wouldn't have done that if she
hadn't spoken to me of my sister first. I can't tell too many
people about that. One can't trust Rita. I know she doesn't fear
God but perhaps human respect may keep her from taking this house
back from me. If she doesn't want me to talk about her to people
why doesn't she give me a properly stamped piece of paper for it?"
She said all this rapidly in one breath and at the end had a sort
of anxious gasp which gave me the opportunity to voice my surprise.
It was immense.
"That lady, the strange lady, spoke to you of your sister first!" I
"The lady asked me, after she had been in a little time, whether
really this house belonged to Madame de Lastaola. She had been so
sweet and kind and condescending that I did not mind humiliating my
spirit before such a good Christian. I told her that I didn't know
how the poor sinner in her mad blindness called herself, but that
this house had been given to me truly enough by my sister. She
raised her eyebrows at that but she looked at me at the same time
so kindly, as much as to say, 'Don't trust much to that, my dear
girl,' that I couldn't help taking up her hand, soft as down, and
kissing it. She took it away pretty quick but she was not
offended. But she only said, 'That's very generous on your
sister's part,' in a way that made me run cold all over. I suppose
all the world knows our Rita for a shameless girl. It was then
that the lady took up those glasses on a long gold handle and
looked at me through them till I felt very much abashed. She said
to me, 'There is nothing to be unhappy about. Madame de Lastaola
is a very remarkable person who has done many surprising things.
She is not to be judged like other people and as far as I know she
has never wronged a single human being. . . .' That put heart into
me, I can tell you; and the lady told me then not to disturb her
son. She would wait till he woke up. She knew he was a bad
sleeper. I said to her: 'Why, I can hear the dear sweet gentleman
this moment having his bath in the fencing-room,' and I took her
into the studio. They are there now and they are going to have
their lunch together at twelve o'clock."
"Why on earth didn't you tell me at first that the lady was Mrs.
"Didn't I? I thought I did," she said innocently. I felt a sudden
desire to get out of that house, to fly from the reinforced Blunt
element which was to me so oppressive.
"I want to get up and dress, Mademoiselle Therese," I said.
She gave a slight start and without looking at me again glided out
of the room, the many folds of her brown skirt remaining
undisturbed as she moved.
I looked at my watch; it was ten o'clock. Therese had been late
with my coffee. The delay was clearly caused by the unexpected
arrival of Mr. Blunt's mother, which might or might not have been
expected by her son. The existence of those Blunts made me feel
uncomfortable in a peculiar way as though they had been the
denizens of another planet with a subtly different point of view
and something in the intelligence which was bound to remain unknown
to me. It caused in me a feeling of inferiority which I intensely
disliked. This did not arise from the actual fact that those
people originated in another continent. I had met Americans
before. And the Blunts were Americans. But so little! That was
the trouble. Captain Blunt might have been a Frenchman as far as
languages, tones, and manners went. But you could not have
mistaken him for one. . . . Why? You couldn't tell. It was
something indefinite. It occurred to me while I was towelling hard
my hair, face, and the back of my neck, that I could not meet J. K.
Blunt on equal terms in any relation of life except perhaps arms in
hand, and in preference with pistols, which are less intimate,
acting at a distance--but arms of some sort. For physically his
life, which could be taken away from him, was exactly like mine,
held on the same terms and of the same vanishing quality.
I would have smiled at my absurdity if all, even the most intimate,
vestige of gaiety had not been crushed out of my heart by the
intolerable weight of my love for Rita. It crushed, it
overshadowed, too, it was immense. If there were any smiles in the
world (which I didn't believe) I could not have seen them. Love
for Rita . . . if it was love, I asked myself despairingly, while I
brushed my hair before a glass. It did not seem to have any sort
of beginning as far as I could remember. A thing the origin of
which you cannot trace cannot be seriously considered. It is an
illusion. Or perhaps mine was a physical state, some sort of
disease akin to melancholia which is a form of insanity? The only
moments of relief I could remember were when she and I would start
squabbling like two passionate infants in a nursery, over anything
under heaven, over a phrase, a word sometimes, in the great light
of the glass rotunda, disregarding the quiet entrances and exits of
the ever-active Rose, in great bursts of voices and peals of
laughter. . . .
I felt tears come into my eyes at the memory of her laughter, the
true memory of the senses almost more penetrating than the reality
itself. It haunted me. All that appertained to her haunted me
with the same awful intimacy, her whole form in the familiar pose,
her very substance in its colour and texture, her eyes, her lips,
the gleam of her teeth, the tawny mist of her hair, the smoothness
of her forehead, the faint scent that she used, the very shape,
feel, and warmth of her high-heeled slipper that would sometimes in
the heat of the discussion drop on the floor with a crash, and
which I would (always in the heat of the discussion) pick up and
toss back on the couch without ceasing to argue. And besides being
haunted by what was Rita on earth I was haunted also by her
waywardness, her gentleness and her flame, by that which the high
gods called Rita when speaking of her amongst themselves. Oh, yes,
certainly I was haunted by her but so was her sister Therese--who
was crazy. It proved nothing. As to her tears, since I had not
caused them, they only aroused my indignation. To put her head on
my shoulder, to weep these strange tears, was nothing short of an
outrageous liberty. It was a mere emotional trick. She would have
just as soon leaned her head against the over-mantel of one of
those tall, red granite chimney-pieces in order to weep
comfortably. And then when she had no longer any need of support
she dispensed with it by simply telling me to go away. How
convenient! The request had sounded pathetic, almost sacredly so,
but then it might have been the exhibition of the coolest possible
impudence. With her one could not tell. Sorrow, indifference,
tears, smiles, all with her seemed to have a hidden meaning.
Nothing could be trusted. . . Heavens! Am I as crazy as Therese I
asked myself with a passing chill of fear, while occupied in
equalizing the ends of my neck-tie.
I felt suddenly that "this sort of thing" would kill me. The
definition of the cause was vague, but the thought itself was no
mere morbid artificiality of sentiment but a genuine conviction.
"That sort of thing" was what I would have to die from. It
wouldn't be from the innumerable doubts. Any sort of certitude
would be also deadly. It wouldn't be from a stab--a kiss would
kill me as surely. It would not be from a frown or from any
particular word or any particular act--but from having to bear them
all, together and in succession--from having to live with "that
sort of thing." About the time I finished with my neck-tie I had
done with life too. I absolutely did not care because I couldn't
tell whether, mentally and physically, from the roots of my hair to
the soles of my feet--whether I was more weary or unhappy.
And now my toilet was finished, my occupation was gone. An immense
distress descended upon me. It has been observed that the routine
of daily life, that arbitrary system of trifles, is a great moral
support. But my toilet was finished, I had nothing more to do of
those things consecrated by usage and which leave you no option.
The exercise of any kind of volition by a man whose consciousness
is reduced to the sensation that he is being killed by "that sort
of thing" cannot be anything but mere trifling with death, an
insincere pose before himself. I wasn't capable of it. It was
then that I discovered that being killed by "that sort of thing," I
mean the absolute conviction of it, was, so to speak, nothing in
itself. The horrible part was the waiting. That was the cruelty,
the tragedy, the bitterness of it. "Why the devil don't I drop
dead now?" I asked myself peevishly, taking a clean handkerchief
out of the drawer and stuffing it in my pocket.
This was absolutely the last thing, the last ceremony of an
imperative rite. I was abandoned to myself now and it was
terrible. Generally I used to go out, walk down to the port, take
a look at the craft I loved with a sentiment that was extremely
complex, being mixed up with the image of a woman; perhaps go on
board, not because there was anything for me to do there but just
for nothing, for happiness, simply as a man will sit contented in
the companionship of the beloved object. For lunch I had the
choice of two places, one Bohemian, the other select, even
aristocratic, where I had still my reserved table in the petit
salon, up the white staircase. In both places I had friends who
treated my erratic appearances with discretion, in one case tinged
with respect, in the other with a certain amused tolerance. I owed
this tolerance to the most careless, the most confirmed of those
Bohemians (his beard had streaks of grey amongst its many other
tints) who, once bringing his heavy hand down on my shoulder, took
my defence against the charge of being disloyal and even foreign to
that milieu of earnest visions taking beautiful and revolutionary
shapes in the smoke of pipes, in the jingle of glasses.
"That fellow (ce garcon) is a primitive nature, but he may be an
artist in a sense. He has broken away from his conventions. He is
trying to put a special vibration and his own notion of colour into
his life; and perhaps even to give it a modelling according to his
own ideas. And for all you know he may be on the track of a
masterpiece; but observe: if it happens to be one nobody will see
it. It can be only for himself. And even he won't be able to see
it in its completeness except on his death-bed. There is something
fine in that."
I had blushed with pleasure; such fine ideas had never entered my
head. But there was something fine. . . . How far all this seemed!
How mute and how still! What a phantom he was, that man with a
beard of at least seven tones of brown. And those shades of the
other kind such as Baptiste with the shaven diplomatic face, the
maitre d'hotel in charge of the petit salon, taking my hat and
stick from me with a deferential remark: "Monsieur is not very
often seen nowadays." And those other well-groomed heads raised
and nodding at my passage--"Bonjour." "Bonjour"--following me with
interested eyes; these young X.s and Z.s, low-toned, markedly
discreet, lounging up to my table on their way out with murmurs:
"Are you well?"--"Will one see you anywhere this evening?"--not
from curiosity, God forbid, but just from friendliness; and passing
on almost without waiting for an answer. What had I to do with
them, this elegant dust, these moulds of provincial fashion?
I also often lunched with Dona Rita without invitation. But that
was now unthinkable. What had I to do with a woman who allowed
somebody else to make her cry and then with an amazing lack of good
feeling did her offensive weeping on my shoulder? Obviously I
could have nothing to do with her. My five minutes' meditation in
the middle of the bedroom came to an end without even a sigh. The
dead don't sigh, and for all practical purposes I was that, except
for the final consummation, the growing cold, the rigor mortis--
that blessed state! With measured steps I crossed the landing to
The windows of that room gave out on the street of the Consuls
which as usual was silent. And the house itself below me and above
me was soundless, perfectly still. In general the house was quiet,
dumbly quiet, without resonances of any sort, something like what
one would imagine the interior of a convent would be. I suppose it
was very solidly built. Yet that morning I missed in the stillness
that feeling of security and peace which ought to have been
associated with it. It is, I believe, generally admitted that the
dead are glad to be at rest. But I wasn't at rest. What was wrong
with that silence? There was something incongruous in that peace.
What was it that had got into that stillness? Suddenly I
remembered: the mother of Captain Blunt.
Why had she come all the way from Paris? And why should I bother
my head about it? H'm--the Blunt atmosphere, the reinforced Blunt
vibration stealing through the walls, through the thick walls and
the almost more solid stillness. Nothing to me, of course--the
movements of Mme. Blunt, mere. It was maternal affection which had
brought her south by either the evening or morning Rapide, to take
anxious stock of the ravages of that insomnia. Very good thing,
insomnia, for a cavalry officer perpetually on outpost duty, a real
godsend, so to speak; but on leave a truly devilish condition to be
The above sequence of thoughts was entirely unsympathetic and it
was followed by a feeling of satisfaction that I, at any rate, was
not suffering from insomnia. I could always sleep in the end. In
the end. Escape into a nightmare. Wouldn't he revel in that if he
could! But that wasn't for him. He had to toss about open-eyed
all night and get up weary, weary. But oh, wasn't I weary, too,
waiting for a sleep without dreams.
I heard the door behind me open. I had been standing with my face
to the window and, I declare, not knowing what I was looking at
across the road--the Desert of Sahara or a wall of bricks, a
landscape of rivers and forests or only the Consulate of Paraguay.
But I had been thinking, apparently, of Mr. Blunt with such
intensity that when I saw him enter the room it didn't really make
much difference. When I turned about the door behind him was
already shut. He advanced towards me, correct, supple, hollow-
eyed, and smiling; and as to his costume ready to go out except for
the old shooting jacket which he must have affectioned
particularly, for he never lost any time in getting into it at
every opportunity. Its material was some tweed mixture; it had
gone inconceivably shabby, it was shrunk from old age, it was
ragged at the elbows; but any one could see at a glance that it had
been made in London by a celebrated tailor, by a distinguished
specialist. Blunt came towards me in all the elegance of his
slimness and affirming in every line of his face and body, in the
correct set of his shoulders and the careless freedom of his
movements, the superiority, the inexpressible superiority, the
unconscious, the unmarked, the not-to-be-described, and even not-
to-be-caught, superiority of the naturally born and the perfectly
finished man of the world, over the simple young man. He was
smiling, easy, correct, perfectly delightful, fit to kill
He had come to ask me, if I had no other engagement, to lunch with
him and his mother in about an hour's time. He did it in a most
degage tone. His mother had given him a surprise. The completest
. . . The foundation of his mother's psychology was her delightful
unexpectedness. She could never let things be (this in a peculiar
tone which he checked at once) and he really would take it very
kindly of me if I came to break the tete-a-tete for a while (that
is if I had no other engagement. Flash of teeth). His mother was
exquisitely and tenderly absurd. She had taken it into her head
that his health was endangered in some way. And when she took
anything into her head . . . Perhaps I might find something to say
which would reassure her. His mother had two long conversations
with Mills on his passage through Paris and had heard of me (I knew
how that thick man could speak of people, he interjected
ambiguously) and his mother, with an insatiable curiosity for
anything that was rare (filially humorous accent here and a softer
flash of teeth), was very anxious to have me presented to her
(courteous intonation, but no teeth). He hoped I wouldn't mind if
she treated me a little as an "interesting young man." His mother
had never got over her seventeenth year, and the manner of the
spoilt beauty of at least three counties at the back of the
Carolinas. That again got overlaid by the sans-facon of a grande
dame of the Second Empire.
I accepted the invitation with a worldly grin and a perfectly just
intonation, because I really didn't care what I did. I only
wondered vaguely why that fellow required all the air in the room
for himself. There did not seem enough left to go down my throat.
I didn't say that I would come with pleasure or that I would be
delighted, but I said that I would come. He seemed to forget his
tongue in his head, put his hands in his pockets and moved about
vaguely. "I am a little nervous this morning," he said in French,
stopping short and looking me straight in the eyes. His own were
deep sunk, dark, fatal. I asked with some malice, that no one
could have detected in my intonation, "How's that sleeplessness?"
He muttered through his teeth, "Mal. Je ne dors plus." He moved
off to stand at the window with his back to the room. I sat down
on a sofa that was there and put my feet up, and silence took
possession of the room.
"Isn't this street ridiculous?" said Blunt suddenly, and crossing
the room rapidly waved his hand to me, "A bientot donc," and was
gone. He had seared himself into my mind. I did not understand
him nor his mother then; which made them more impressive; but I
have discovered since that those two figures required no mystery to
make them memorable. Of course it isn't every day that one meets a
mother that lives by her wits and a son that lives by his sword,
but there was a perfect finish about their ambiguous personalities
which is not to be met twice in a life-time. I shall never forget
that grey dress with ample skirts and long corsage yet with
infinite style, the ancient as if ghostly beauty of outlines, the
black lace, the silver hair, the harmonious, restrained movements
of those white, soft hands like the hands of a queen--or an abbess;
and in the general fresh effect of her person the brilliant eyes
like two stars with the calm reposeful way they had of moving on
and off one, as if nothing in the world had the right to veil
itself before their once sovereign beauty. Captain Blunt with
smiling formality introduced me by name, adding with a certain
relaxation of the formal tone the comment: "The Monsieur George!
whose fame you tell me has reached even Paris." Mrs. Blunt's
reception of me, glance, tones, even to the attitude of the
admirably corseted figure, was most friendly, approaching the limit
of half-familiarity. I had the feeling that I was beholding in her
a captured ideal. No common experience! But I didn't care. It
was very lucky perhaps for me that in a way I was like a very sick
man who has yet preserved all his lucidity. I was not even
wondering to myself at what on earth I was doing there. She
breathed out: "Comme c'est romantique," at large to the dusty
studio as it were; then pointing to a chair at her right hand, and
bending slightly towards me she said:
"I have heard this name murmured by pretty lips in more than one
I didn't say anything to that ingratiating speech. I had only an
odd thought that she could not have had such a figure, nothing like
it, when she was seventeen and wore snowy muslin dresses on the
family plantation in South Carolina, in pre-abolition days.
"You won't mind, I am sure, if an old woman whose heart is still
young elects to call you by it," she declared.
"Certainly, Madame. It will be more romantic," I assented with a
She dropped a calm: "Yes--there is nothing like romance while one
is young. So I will call you Monsieur George," she paused and then
added, "I could never get old," in a matter-of-fact final tone as
one would remark, "I could never learn to swim," and I had the
presence of mind to say in a tone to match, "C'est evident,
Madame." It was evident. She couldn't get old; and across the
table her thirty-year-old son who couldn't get sleep sat listening
with courteous detachment and the narrowest possible line of white
underlining his silky black moustache.
"Your services are immensely appreciated," she said with an amusing
touch of importance as of a great official lady. "Immensely
appreciated by people in a position to understand the great
significance of the Carlist movement in the South. There it has to
combat anarchism, too. I who have lived through the Commune . . ."
Therese came in with a dish, and for the rest of the lunch the
conversation so well begun drifted amongst the most appalling
inanities of the religious-royalist-legitimist order. The ears of
all the Bourbons in the world must have been burning. Mrs. Blunt
seemed to have come into personal contact with a good many of them
and the marvellous insipidity of her recollections was astonishing
to my inexperience. I looked at her from time to time thinking:
She has seen slavery, she has seen the Commune, she knows two
continents, she has seen a civil war, the glory of the Second
Empire, the horrors of two sieges; she has been in contact with
marked personalities, with great events, she has lived on her
wealth, on her personality, and there she is with her plumage
unruffled, as glossy as ever, unable to get old:--a sort of Phoenix
free from the slightest signs of ashes and dust, all complacent
amongst those inanities as if there had been nothing else in the
world. In my youthful haste I asked myself what sort of airy soul
At last Therese put a dish of fruit on the table, a small
collection of oranges, raisins, and nuts. No doubt she had bought
that lot very cheap and it did not look at all inviting. Captain
Blunt jumped up. "My mother can't stand tobacco smoke. Will you
keep her company, mon cher, while I take a turn with a cigar in
that ridiculous garden. The brougham from the hotel will be here
He left us in the white flash of an apologetic grin. Almost
directly he reappeared, visible from head to foot through the glass
side of the studio, pacing up and down the central path of that
"ridiculous" garden: for its elegance and its air of good breeding
the most remarkable figure that I have ever seen before or since.
He had changed his coat. Madame Blunt mere lowered the long-
handled glasses through which she had been contemplating him with
an appraising, absorbed expression which had nothing maternal in
it. But what she said to me was:
"You understand my anxieties while he is campaigning with the
She had spoken in French and she had used the expression "mes
transes" but for all the rest, intonation, bearing, solemnity, she
might have been referring to one of the Bourbons. I am sure that
not a single one of them looked half as aristocratic as her son.
"I understand perfectly, Madame. But then that life is so
"Hundreds of young men belonging to a certain sphere are doing
that," she said very distinctly, "only their case is different.
They have their positions, their families to go back to; but we are
different. We are exiles, except of course for the ideals, the
kindred spirit, the friendships of old standing we have in France.
Should my son come out unscathed he has no one but me and I have no
one but him. I have to think of his life. Mr. Mills (what a
distinguished mind that is!) has reassured me as to my son's
health. But he sleeps very badly, doesn't he?"
I murmured something affirmative in a doubtful tone and she
remarked quaintly, with a certain curtness, "It's so unnecessary,
this worry! The unfortunate position of an exile has its
advantages. At a certain height of social position (wealth has got
nothing to do with it, we have been ruined in a most righteous
cause), at a certain established height one can disregard narrow
prejudices. You see examples in the aristocracies of all the
countries. A chivalrous young American may offer his life for a
remote ideal which yet may belong to his familial tradition. We,
in our great country, have every sort of tradition. But a young
man of good connections and distinguished relations must settle
down some day, dispose of his life."
"No doubt, Madame," I said, raising my eyes to the figure outside--
"Americain, Catholique et gentilhomme"--walking up and down the
path with a cigar which he was not smoking. "For myself, I don't
know anything about those necessities. I have broken away for ever
from those things."
"Yes, Mr. Mills talked to me about you. What a golden heart that
is. His sympathies are infinite."
I thought suddenly of Mills pronouncing on Mme. Blunt, whatever his
text on me might have been: "She lives by her wits." Was she
exercising her wits on me for some purpose of her own? And I
"I really know your son so very little."
"Oh, voyons," she protested. "I am aware that you are very much
younger, but the similitudes of opinions, origins and perhaps at
bottom, faintly, of character, of chivalrous devotion--no, you must
be able to understand him in a measure. He is infinitely
scrupulous and recklessly brave."
I listened deferentially to the end yet with every nerve in my body
tingling in hostile response to the Blunt vibration, which seemed
to have got into my very hair.
"I am convinced of it, Madame. I have even heard of your son's
bravery. It's extremely natural in a man who, in his own words,
'lives by his sword.'"
She suddenly departed from her almost inhuman perfection, betrayed
"nerves" like a common mortal, of course very slightly, but in her
it meant more than a blaze of fury from a vessel of inferior clay.
Her admirable little foot, marvellously shod in a black shoe,
tapped the floor irritably. But even in that display there was
something exquisitely delicate. The very anger in her voice was
silvery, as it were, and more like the petulance of a seventeen-
"What nonsense! A Blunt doesn't hire himself."
"Some princely families," I said, "were founded by men who have
done that very thing. The great Condottieri, you know."
It was in an almost tempestuous tone that she made me observe that
we were not living in the fifteenth century. She gave me also to
understand with some spirit that there was no question here of
founding a family. Her son was very far from being the first of
the name. His importance lay rather in being the last of a race
which had totally perished, she added in a completely drawing-room
tone, "in our Civil War."
She had mastered her irritation and through the glass side of the
room sent a wistful smile to his address, but I noticed the yet
unextinguished anger in her eyes full of fire under her beautiful
white eyebrows. For she was growing old! Oh, yes, she was growing
old, and secretly weary, and perhaps desperate.
Without caring much about it I was conscious of sudden
illumination. I said to myself confidently that these two people
had been quarrelling all the morning. I had discovered the secret
of my invitation to that lunch. They did not care to face the
strain of some obstinate, inconclusive discussion for fear, maybe,
of it ending in a serious quarrel. And so they had agreed that I
should be fetched downstairs to create a diversion. I cannot say I
felt annoyed. I didn't care. My perspicacity did not please me
either. I wished they had left me alone--but nothing mattered.
They must have been in their superiority accustomed to make use of
people, without compunction. From necessity, too. She especially.
She lived by her wits. The silence had grown so marked that I had
at last to raise my eyes; and the first thing I observed was that
Captain Blunt was no longer to be seen in the garden. Must have
gone indoors. Would rejoin us in a moment. Then I would leave
mother and son to themselves.
The next thing I noticed was that a great mellowness had descended
upon the mother of the last of his race. But these terms,
irritation, mellowness, appeared gross when applied to her. It is
impossible to give an idea of the refinement and subtlety of all
her transformations. She smiled faintly at me.
"But all this is beside the point. The real point is that my son,
like all fine natures, is a being of strange contradictions which
the trials of life have not yet reconciled in him. With me it is a
little different. The trials fell mainly to my share--and of
course I have lived longer. And then men are much more complex
than women, much more difficult, too. And you, Monsieur George?
Are you complex, with unexpected resistances and difficulties in
your etre intime--your inner self? I wonder now . . ."
The Blunt atmosphere seemed to vibrate all over my skin. I
disregarded the symptom. "Madame," I said, "I have never tried to
find out what sort of being I am."
"Ah, that's very wrong. We ought to reflect on what manner of
beings we are. Of course we are all sinners. My John is a sinner
like the others," she declared further, with a sort of proud
tenderness as though our common lot must have felt honoured and to
a certain extent purified by this condescending recognition.
"You are too young perhaps as yet . . . But as to my John," she
broke off, leaning her elbow on the table and supporting her head
on her old, impeccably shaped, white fore-arm emerging from a lot
of precious, still older, lace trimming the short sleeve. "The
trouble is that he suffers from a profound discord between the
necessary reactions to life and even the impulses of nature and the
lofty idealism of his feelings; I may say, of his principles. I
assure you that he won't even let his heart speak uncontradicted."
I am sure I don't know what particular devil looks after the
associations of memory, and I can't even imagine the shock which it
would have been for Mrs. Blunt to learn that the words issuing from
her lips had awakened in me the visual perception of a dark-
skinned, hard-driven lady's maid with tarnished eyes; even of the
tireless Rose handing me my hat while breathing out the enigmatic
words: "Madame should listen to her heart." A wave from the
atmosphere of another house rolled in, overwhelming and fiery,
seductive and cruel, through the Blunt vibration, bursting through
it as through tissue paper and filling my heart with sweet murmurs
and distracting images, till it seemed to break, leaving an empty
stillness in my breast.
After that for a long time I heard Mme. Blunt mere talking with
extreme fluency and I even caught the individual words, but I could
not in the revulsion of my feelings get hold of the sense. She
talked apparently of life in general, of its difficulties, moral
and physical, of its surprising turns, of its unexpected contacts,
of the choice and rare personalities that drift on it as if on the
sea; of the distinction that letters and art gave to it, the
nobility and consolations there are in aesthetics, of the
privileges they confer on individuals and (this was the first
connected statement I caught) that Mills agreed with her in the
general point of view as to the inner worth of individualities and
in the particular instance of it on which she had opened to him her
innermost heart. Mills had a universal mind. His sympathy was
universal, too. He had that large comprehension--oh, not cynical,
not at all cynical, in fact rather tender--which was found in its
perfection only in some rare, very rare Englishmen. The dear
creature was romantic, too. Of course he was reserved in his
speech but she understood Mills perfectly. Mills apparently liked
me very much.
It was time for me to say something. There was a challenge in the
reposeful black eyes resting upon my face. I murmured that I was
very glad to hear it. She waited a little, then uttered meaningly,
"Mr. Mills is a little bit uneasy about you."
"It's very good of him," I said. And indeed I thought that it was
very good of him, though I did ask myself vaguely in my dulled
brain why he should be uneasy.
Somehow it didn't occur to me to ask Mrs. Blunt. Whether she had
expected me to do so or not I don't know but after a while she
changed the pose she had kept so long and folded her wonderfully
preserved white arms. She looked a perfect picture in silver and
grey, with touches of black here and there. Still I said nothing
more in my dull misery. She waited a little longer, then she woke
me up with a crash. It was as if the house had fallen, and yet she
had only asked me:
"I believe you are received on very friendly terms by Madame de
Lastaola on account of your common exertions for the cause. Very
good friends, are you not?"
"You mean Rita," I said stupidly, but I felt stupid, like a man who
wakes up only to be hit on the head.
"Oh, Rita," she repeated with unexpected acidity, which somehow
made me feel guilty of an incredible breach of good manners. "H'm,
Rita. . . . Oh, well, let it be Rita--for the present. Though why
she should be deprived of her name in conversation about her,
really I don't understand. Unless a very special intimacy . . ."
She was distinctly annoyed. I said sulkily, "It isn't her name."
"It is her choice, I understand, which seems almost a better title
to recognition on the part of the world. It didn't strike you so
before? Well, it seems to me that choice has got more right to be
respected than heredity or law. Moreover, Mme. de Lastaola," she
continued in an insinuating voice, "that most rare and fascinating
young woman is, as a friend like you cannot deny, outside legality
altogether. Even in that she is an exceptional creature. For she
is exceptional--you agree?"
I had gone dumb, I could only stare at her.
"Oh, I see, you agree. No friend of hers could deny."
"Madame," I burst out, "I don't know where a question of friendship
comes in here with a person whom you yourself call so exceptional.
I really don't know how she looks upon me. Our intercourse is of
course very close and confidential. Is that also talked about in
"Not at all, not in the least," said Mrs. Blunt, easy, equable, but
with her calm, sparkling eyes holding me in angry subjection.
"Nothing of the sort is being talked about. The references to Mme.
de Lastaola are in a very different tone, I can assure you, thanks
to her discretion in remaining here. And, I must say, thanks to
the discreet efforts of her friends. I am also a friend of Mme. de
Lastaola, you must know. Oh, no, I have never spoken to her in my
life and have seen her only twice, I believe. I wrote to her
though, that I admit. She or rather the image of her has come into
my life, into that part of it where art and letters reign
undisputed like a sort of religion of beauty to which I have been
faithful through all the vicissitudes of my existence. Yes, I did
write to her and I have been preoccupied with her for a long time.
It arose from a picture, from two pictures and also from a phrase
pronounced by a man, who in the science of life and in the
perception of aesthetic truth had no equal in the world of culture.
He said that there was something in her of the women of all time.
I suppose he meant the inheritance of all the gifts that make up an
irresistible fascination--a great personality. Such women are not
born often. Most of them lack opportunities. They never develop.
They end obscurely. Here and there one survives to make her mark
even in history. . . . And even that is not a very enviable fate.
They are at another pole from the so-called dangerous women who are
merely coquettes. A coquette has got to work for her success. The
others have nothing to do but simply exist. You perceive the view
I take of the difference?"
I perceived the view. I said to myself that nothing in the world
could be more aristocratic. This was the slave-owning woman who
had never worked, even if she had been reduced to live by her wits.
She was a wonderful old woman. She made me dumb. She held me
fascinated by the well-bred attitude, something sublimely aloof in
her air of wisdom.
I just simply let myself go admiring her as though I had been a
mere slave of aesthetics: the perfect grace, the amazing poise of
that venerable head, the assured as if royal--yes, royal even flow
of the voice. . . . But what was it she was talking about now?
These were no longer considerations about fatal women. She was
talking about her son again. My interest turned into mere
bitterness of contemptuous attention. For I couldn't withhold it
though I tried to let the stuff go by. Educated in the most
aristocratic college in Paris . . . at eighteen . . . call of duty
. . . with General Lee to the very last cruel minute . . . after
that catastrophe end of the world--return to France--to old
friendships, infinite kindness--but a life hollow, without
occupation. . . Then 1870--and chivalrous response to adopted
country's call and again emptiness, the chafing of a proud spirit
without aim and handicapped not exactly by poverty but by lack of
fortune. And she, the mother, having to look on at this wasting of
a most accomplished man, of a most chivalrous nature that
practically had no future before it.
"You understand me well, Monsieur George. A nature like this! It
is the most refined cruelty of fate to look at. I don't know
whether I suffered more in times of war or in times of peace. You
I bowed my head in silence. What I couldn't understand was why he
delayed so long in joining us again. Unless he had had enough of
his mother? I thought without any great resentment that I was
being victimized; but then it occurred to me that the cause of his
absence was quite simple. I was familiar enough with his habits by
this time to know that he often managed to snatch an hour's sleep
or so during the day. He had gone and thrown himself on his bed.
"I admire him exceedingly," Mrs. Blunt was saying in a tone which
was not at all maternal. "His distinction, his fastidiousness, the
earnest warmth of his heart. I know him well. I assure you that I
would never have dared to suggest," she continued with an
extraordinary haughtiness of attitude and tone that aroused my
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