Part 15 out of 31
the only incident in his life was when he moved, in 1868, because his
landlord had tried to raise his rent.
Every day his alarm clock, with a frightful noise of rattling chains,
made him spring out of bed at 6 o'clock precisely.
Twice, however, this piece of mechanism had been out of order--once in
1866 and again in 1874; he had never been able to find out the reason
why. He would dress, make his bed, sweep his room, dust his chair and
the top of his bureau. All this took him an hour and a half.
Then he would go out, buy a roll at the Lahure Bakery, in which he had
seen eleven different owners without the name ever changing, and he would
eat this roll on the way to the office.
His entire existence had been spent in the narrow, dark office, which was
still decorated with the same wall paper. He had entered there as a
young man, as assistant to Monsieur Brument, and with the desire to
He had taken his place and wished for nothing more.
The whole harvest of memories which other men reap in their span of
years, the unexpected events, sweet or tragic loves, adventurous
journeys, all the occurrences of a free existence, all these things had
remained unknown to him.
Days, weeks, months, seasons, years, all were alike to him. He got up
every day at the same hour, started out, arrived at the office, ate
luncheon, went away, had dinner and went to bed without ever interrupting
the regular monotony of similar actions, deeds and thoughts.
Formerly he used to look at his blond mustache and wavy hair in the
little round mirror left by his predecessor. Now, every evening before
leaving, he would look at his white mustache and bald head in the same
mirror. Forty years had rolled by, long and rapid, dreary as a day of
sadness and as similar as the hours of a sleepless night. Forty years of
which nothing remained, not even a memory, not even a misfortune, since
the death of his parents. Nothing.
That day Monsieur Leras stood by the door, dazzled at the brilliancy of
the setting sun; and instead of returning home he decided to take a
little stroll before dinner, a thing which happened to him four or five
times a year.
He reached the boulevards, where people were streaming along under the
green trees. It was a spring evening, one of those first warm and
pleasant evenings which fill the heart with the joy of life.
Monsieur Leras went along with his mincing old man's step; he was going
along with joy in his heart, at peace with the world. He reached the
Champs-Elysees, and he continued to walk, enlivened by the sight of the
young people trotting along.
The whole sky was aflame; the Arc de Triomphe stood out against the
brilliant background of the horizon, like a giant surrounded by fire. As
he approached the immense monument, the old bookkeeper noticed that he
was hungry, and he went into a wine dealer's for dinner.
The meal was served in front of the store, on the sidewalk. It consisted
of some mutton, salad and asparagus. It was the best dinner that
Monsieur Leras had had in a long time. He washed down his cheese with a
small bottle of burgundy, had his after-dinner cup of coffee, a thing
which he rarely took, and finally a little pony of brandy.
When he had paid he felt quite youthful, even a little moved. And he
said to himself: "What a fine evening! I will continue my stroll as far
as the entrance to the Bois de Boulogne. It will do me good."
He set out. An old tune which one of his neighbors used to sing kept
returning to his mind. He kept on humming it over and over again. A
hot, still night had fallen over Paris. Monsieur Leras walked along the
Avenue du Bois de Boulogne and watched the cabs drive by. They kept
coming with their shining lights, one behind the other, giving horn a
glimpse of the couples inside, the women in their light dresses and the
men dressed in black.
It was one long procession of lovers, riding under the warm, starlit sky.
They kept on coming in rapid succession. They passed by in the
carriages, silent, side by side, lost in their dreams, in the emotion of
desire, in the anticipation of the approaching embrace. The warm shadows
seemed to be full of floating kisses. A sensation of tenderness filled
the air. All these carriages full of tender couples, all these people
intoxicated with the same idea, with the same thought, seemed to give out
a disturbing, subtle emanation.
At last Monsieur Leras grew a little tired of walking, and he sat down on
a bench to watch these carriages pass by with their burdens of love.
Almost immediately a woman walked up to him and sat down beside him.
"Good-evening, papa," she said.
He answered: "Madame, you are mistaken."
She slipped her arm through his, saying: "Come along, now; don't be
He arose and walked away, with sadness in his heart. A few yards away
another woman walked up to him and asked: "Won't you sit down beside me?"
He said: "What makes you take up this life?"
She stood before him and in an altered, hoarse, angry voice exclaimed:
"Well, it isn't for the fun of it, anyhow!"
He insisted in a gentle voice: "Then what makes you?"
She grumbled: "I've got to live! Foolish question!" And she walked away,
Monsieur Leras stood there bewildered. Other women were passing near
him, speaking to him and calling to him. He felt as though he were
enveloped in darkness by something disagreeable.
He sat down again on a bench. The carriages were still rolling by. He
thought: "I should have done better not to come here; I feel all upset."
He began to think of all this venal or passionate love, of all these
kisses, sold or given, which were passing by it front of him. Love! He
scarcely knew it. In his lifetime he had only known two or three women,
his means forcing him to live a quiet life, and he looked back at the
life which he had led, so different from everybody else, so dreary, so
mournful, so empty.
Some people are really unfortunate. And suddenly, as though a veil had
been torn from his eyes, he perceived the infinite misery, the monotony
of his existence: the past, present and future misery; his last day
similar to his first one, with nothing before him, behind him or about
him, nothing in his heart or any place.
The stream of carriages was still going by. In the rapid passage of the
open carriage he still saw the two silent, loving creatures. It seemed
to him that the whole of humanity was flowing on before him, intoxicated
with joy, pleasure and happiness. He alone was looking on. To-morrow he
would again be alone, always alone, more so than any one else. He stood
up, took a few steps, and suddenly he felt as tired as though he had
taken a long journey on foot, and he sat down on the next bench.
What was he waiting for? What was he hoping for? Nothing. He was
thinking of how pleasant it must be in old age to return home and find
the little children. It is pleasant to grow old when one is surrounded
by those beings who owe their life to you, who love you, who caress you,
who tell you charming and foolish little things which warm your heart and
console you for everything.
And, thinking of his empty room, clean and sad, where no one but himself
ever entered, a feeling of distress filled his soul; and the place seemed
to him more mournful even than his little office. Nobody ever came
there; no one ever spoke in it. It was dead, silent, without the echo of
a human voice. It seems as though walls retain something of the people
who live within them, something of their manner, face and voice. The
very houses inhabited by happy families are gayer than the dwellings of
the unhappy. His room was as barren of memories as his life. And the
thought of returning to this place, all alone, of getting into his bed,
of again repeating all the duties and actions of every evening, this
thought terrified him. As though to escape farther from this sinister
home, and from the time when he would have to return to it, he arose and
walked along a path to a wooded corner, where he sat down on the grass.
About him, above him, everywhere, he heard a continuous, tremendous,
confused rumble, composed of countless and different noises, a vague and
throbbing pulsation of life: the life breath of Paris, breathing like a
The sun was already high and shed a flood of light on the Bois de
Boulogne. A few carriages were beginning to drive about and people were
appearing on horseback.
A couple was walking through a deserted alley.
Suddenly the young woman raised her eyes and saw something brown in the
branches. Surprised and anxious, she raised her hand, exclaiming: "Look!
what is that?"
Then she shrieked and fell into the arms of her companion, who was forced
to lay her on the ground.
The policeman who had been called cut down an old man who had hung
himself with his suspenders.
Examination showed that he had died the evening before. Papers found on
him showed that he was a bookkeeper for Messieurs Labuze and Company and
that his name was Leras.
His death was attributed to suicide, the cause of which could not be
suspected. Perhaps a sudden access of madness!
At four o'clock that day, as on every other day, Alexandre rolled the
three-wheeled chair for cripples up to the door of the little house;
then, in obedience to the doctor's orders, he would push his old and
infirm mistress about until six o'clock.
When he had placed the light vehicle against the step, just at the place
where the old lady could most easily enter it, he went into the house;
and soon a furious, hoarse old soldier's voice was heard cursing inside
the house: it issued from the master, the retired ex-captain of infantry,
Then could be heard the noise of doors being slammed, chairs being pushed
about, and hasty footsteps; then nothing more. After a few seconds,
Alexandre reappeared on the threshold, supporting with all his strength
Madame Maramballe, who was exhausted from the exertion of descending the
stairs. When she was at last settled in the rolling chair, Alexandre
passed behind it, grasped the handle, and set out toward the river.
Thus they crossed the little town every day amid the respectful greeting,
of all. These bows were perhaps meant as much for the servant as for the
mistress, for if she was loved and esteemed by all, this old trooper,
with his long, white, patriarchal beard, was considered a model domestic.
The July sun was beating down unmercifully on the street, bathing the low
houses in its crude and burning light. Dogs were sleeping on the
sidewalk in the shade of the houses, and Alexandre, a little out of
breath, hastened his footsteps in order sooner to arrive at the avenue
which leads to the water.
Madame Maramballe was already slumbering under her white parasol, the
point of which sometimes grazed along the man's impassive face. As soon
as they had reached the Allee des Tilleuls, she awoke in the shade of the
trees, and she said in a kindly voice: "Go more slowly, my poor boy; you
will kill yourself in this heat."
Along this path, completely covered by arched linden trees, the Mavettek
flowed in its winding bed bordered by willows.
The gurgling of the eddies and the splashing of the little waves against
the rocks lent to the walk the charming music of babbling water and the
freshness of damp air. Madame Maramballe inhaled with deep delight the
humid charm of this spot and then murmured: "Ah! I feel better now! But
he wasn't in a good humor to-day."
Alexandre answered: "No, madame."
For thirty-five years he had been in the service of this couple, first as
officer's orderly, then as simple valet who did not wish to leave his
masters; and for the last six years, every afternoon, he had been
wheeling his mistress about through the narrow streets of the town. From
this long and devoted service, and then from this daily tete-a-tete, a
kind of familiarity arose between the old lady and the devoted servant,
affectionate on her part, deferential on his.
They talked over the affairs of the house exactly as if they were equals.
Their principal subject of conversation and of worry was the bad
disposition of the captain, soured by a long career which had begun with
promise, run along without promotion, end ended without glory.
Madame Maramballe continued: "He certainly was not in a good humor today.
This happens too often since he has left the service."
And Alexandre, with a sigh, completed his mistress's thoughts, "Oh,
madame might say that it happens every day and that it also happened
before leaving the army."
"That is true. But the poor man has been so unfortunate. He began with
a brave deed, which obtained for him the Legion of Honor at the age of
twenty; and then from twenty to fifty he was not able to rise higher than
captain, whereas at the beginning he expected to retire with at least the
rank of colonel."
"Madame might also admit that it was his fault. If he had not always
been as cutting as a whip, his superiors would have loved and protected
him better. Harshness is of no use; one should try to please if one
wishes to advance. As far as his treatment of us is concerned, it is
also our fault, since we are willing to remain with him, but with others
Madame Maramballe was thinking. Oh, for how many years had she thus been
thinking of the brutality of her husband, whom she had married long ago
because he was a handsome officer, decorated quite young, and full of
promise, so they said! What mistakes one makes in life!
She murmured: "Let us stop a while, my poor Alexandre, and you rest on
It was a little worm-eaten bench, placed at a turn in the alley. Every
time they came in this direction Alexandre was accustomed to making a
short pause on this seat.
He sat down and with a proud and familiar gesture he took his beautiful
white beard in his hand, and, closing his, fingers over it, ran them down
to the point, which he held for a minute at the pit of his stomach, as if
once more to verify the length of this growth.
Madame Maramballe continued: "I married him; it is only just and natural
that I should bear his injustice; but what I do not understand is why you
also should have supported it, my good Alexandre!"
He merely shrugged his shoulders and answered: "Oh! I--madame."
She added: "Really. I have often wondered. When I married him you were
his orderly and you could hardly do otherwise than endure him. But why
did you remain with us, who pay you so little and who treat you so badly,
when you could have done as every one else does, settle down, marry, have
He answered: "Oh, madame! with me it's different."
Then he was silent; but he kept pulling his beard as if he were ringing a
bell within him, as if he were trying to pull it out, and he rolled his
eyes like a man who is greatly embarrassed.
Madame Maramballe was following her own train of thought: "You are not a
peasant. You have an education--"
He interrupted her proudly: "I studied surveying, madame."
"Then why did you stay with us, and blast your prospects?"
He stammered: "That's it! that's it! it's the fault of my dispositton."
"How so, of your disposition?"
"Yes, when I become attached to a person I become attached to him, that's
She began to laugh: "You are not going to try to tell me that
Maramballe's sweet disposition caused you to become attached to him for
He was fidgeting about on his bench visibly embarrassed, and he muttered
behind his long beard:
"It was not he, it was you!"
The old lady, who had a sweet face, with a snowy line of curly white hair
between her forehead and her bonnet, turned around in her chair and
observed her servant with a surprised look, exclaiming: "I, my poor
Alexandre! How so?"
He began to look up in the air, then to one side, then toward the
distance, turning his head as do timid people when forced to admit
shameful secrets. At last he exclaimed, with the courage of a trooper
who is ordered to the line of fire: "You see, it's this way--the first
time I brought a letter to mademoiselle from the lieutenant, mademoiselle
gave me a franc and a smile, and that settled it."
Not understanding well, she questioned him "Explain yourself."
Then he cried out, like a malefactor who is admitting a fatal crime:
"I had a sentiment for madame! There!"
She answered nothing, stopped looking at him, hung her head, and thought.
She was good, full of justice, gentleness, reason, and tenderness. In a
second she saw the immense devotion of this poor creature, who had given
up everything in order to live beside her, without saying anything. And
she felt as if she could cry. Then, with a sad but not angry expression,
she said: "Let us return home."
He rose and began to push the wheeled chair.
As they approached the village they saw Captain Maramballe coming toward
them. As soon as he joined them he asked his wife, with a visible desire
of getting angry: "What have we for dinner?"
"Some chicken with flageolets."
He lost his temper: "Chicken! chicken! always chicken! By all that's
holy, I've had enough chicken! Have you no ideas in your head, that you
make me eat chicken every day?"
She answered, in a resigned tone: "But, my dear, you know that the doctor
has ordered it for you. It's the best thing for your stomach. If your
stomach were well, I could give you many things which I do not dare set
before you now."
Then, exasperated, he planted himself in front of Alexandre, exclaiming:
"Well, if my stomach is out of order it's the fault of that brute. For
thirty-five years he has been poisoning me with his abominable cooking."
Madame Maramballe suddenly turned about completely, in order to see the
old domestic. Their eyes met, and in this single glance they both said
"Thank you!" to each other.
The drawing-room was small, full of heavy draperies and discreetly
fragrant. A large fire burned in the grate and a solitary lamp at one
end of the mantelpiece threw a soft light on the two persons who were
She, the mistress of the house, was an old lady with white hair, but one
of those old ladies whose unwrinkled skin is as smooth as the finest
paper, and scented, impregnated with perfume, with the delicate essences
which she had used in her bath for so many years.
He was a very old friend, who had never married, a constant friend, a
companion in the journey of life, but nothing more.
They had not spoken for about a minute, and were both looking at the
fire, dreaming of no matter what, in one of those moments of friendly
silence between people who have no need to be constantly talking in order
to be happy together, when suddenly a large log, a stump covered with
burning roots, fell out. It fell over the firedogs into the drawing-room
and rolled on to the carpet, scattering great sparks around it. The old
lady, with a little scream, sprang to her feet to run away, while he
kicked the log back on to the hearth and stamped out all the burning
sparks with his boots.
When the disaster was remedied, there was a strong smell of burning, and,
sitting down opposite to his friend, the man looked at her with a smile
and said, as he pointed to the log:
"That is the reason why I never married."
She looked at him in astonishment, with the inquisitive gaze of women who
wish to know everything, that eye which women have who are no longer very
young,--in which a complex, and often roguish, curiosity is reflected,
and she asked:
"Oh, it is a long story," he replied; "a rather sad and unpleasant story.
"My old friends were often surprised at the coldness which suddenly
sprang up between one of my best friends whose Christian name was Julien,
and myself. They could not understand how two such intimate and
inseparable friends, as we had been, could suddenly become almost
strangers to one another, and I will tell you the reason of it.
"He and I used to live together at one time. We were never apart, and
the friendship that united us seemed so strong that nothing could break
"One evening when he came home, he told me that he was going to get
married, and it gave me a shock as if he had robbed me or betrayed me.
When a man's friend marries, it is all over between them. The jealous
affection of a woman, that suspicious, uneasy and carnal affection, will
not tolerate the sturdy and frank attachment, that attachment of the
mind, of the heart, and that mutual confidence which exists between two
"You see, however great the love may be that unites them a man and a
woman are always strangers in mind and intellect; they remain
belligerents, they belong to different races. There must always be a
conqueror and a conquered, a master and a slave; now the one, now the
other--they are never two equals. They press each other's hands, those
hands trembling with amorous passion; but they never press them with a
long, strong, loyal pressure, with that pressure which seems to open
hearts and to lay them bare in a burst of sincere, strong, manly
affection. Philosophers of old, instead of marrying, and procreating as
a consolation for their old age children, who would abandon them, sought
for a good, reliable friend, and grew old with him in that communion of
thought which can only exist between men.
"Well, my friend Julien married. His wife was pretty, charming, a
little, curly-haired blonde, plump and lively, who seemed to worship him.
At first I went but rarely to their house, feeling myself de trop. But,
somehow, they attracted me to their home; they were constantly inviting
me, and seemed very fond of me. Consequently, by degrees, I allowed
myself to be allured by the charm of their life. I often dined with
them, and frequently, when I returned home at night, thought that I would
do as he had done, and get married, as my empty house now seemed very
"They appeared to be very much in love, and were never apart.
"Well, one evening Julien wrote and asked me to go to dinner, and I
"'My dear fellow,' he said, 'I must go out directly afterward on
business, and I shall not be back until eleven o'clock; but I shall be
back at eleven precisely, and I reckon on you to keep Bertha company.'
"The young woman smiled.
"'It was my idea,' she said, 'to send for you.'
"I held out my hand to her.
"'You are as nice as ever, I said, and I felt a long, friendly pressure
of my fingers, but I paid no attention to it; so we sat down to dinner,
and at eight o'clock Julien went out.
"As soon as he had gone, a kind of strange embarrassment immediately
seemed to arise between his wife and me. We had never been alone
together yet, and in spite of our daily increasing intimacy, this tete
-a-tete placed us in a new position. At first I spoke vaguely of those
indifferent matters with which one fills up an embarrassing silence, but
she did not reply, and remained opposite to me with her head down in an
undecided manner, as if she were thinking over some difficult subject,
and as I was at a loss for small talk, I held my tongue. It is
surprising how hard it is at times to find anything to say.
"And then also I felt something in the air, something I could not
express, one of those mysterious premonitions that warn one of another
person's secret intentions in regard to yourself, whether they be good or
"That painful silence lasted some time, and then Bertha said to me:
"'Will you kindly put a log on the fire for it is going out.'
"So I opened the box where the wood was kept, which was placed just where
yours is, took out the largest log and put it on top of the others, which
were three parts burned, and then silence again reigned in the room.
"In a few minutes the log was burning so brightly that it scorched our
faces, and the young woman raised her eyes to mine--eyes that had a
strange look to me.
"'It is too hot now,' she said; 'let us go and sit on the sofa over
"So we went and sat on the sofa, and then she said suddenly, looking me
full in the face:
"'What would you do if a woman were to tell you that she was in love with
"'Upon my word,' I replied, very much at a loss for an answer, 'I cannot
foresee such a case; but it would depend very much upon the woman.'
"She gave a hard, nervous, vibrating laugh; one of those false laughs
which seem as if they must break thin glass, and then she added: 'Men are
never either venturesome or spiteful.' And, after a moment's silence,
she continued: 'Have you ever been in love, Monsieur Paul?' I was
obliged to acknowledge that I certainly had, and she asked me to tell her
all about it. Whereupon I made up some story or other. She listened to
me attentively, with frequent signs of disapproval and contempt, and then
suddenly she said:
"'No, you understand nothing about the subject. It seems to me that real
love must unsettle the mind, upset the nerves and distract the head; that
it must--how shall I express it?--be dangerous, even terrible, almost
criminal and sacrilegious; that it must be a kind of treason; I mean to
say that it is bound to break laws, fraternal bonds, sacred obligations;
when love is tranquil, easy, lawful and without dangers, is it really
"I did not know what answer to give her, and I made this philosophical
reflection to myself: 'Oh! female brain, here; indeed, you show
"While speaking, she had assumed a demure saintly air; and, resting on
the cushions, she stretched herself out at full length, with her head on
my shoulder, and her dress pulled up a little so as to show her red
stockings, which the firelight made look still brighter. In a minute or
two she continued:
"'I suppose I have frightened you?' I protested against such a notion,
and she leaned against my breast altogether, and without looking at me,
she said: 'If I were to tell you that I love you, what would you do?'
"And before I could think of an answer, she had thrown her arms around my
neck, had quickly drawn my head down, and put her lips to mine.
"Oh! My dear friend, I can tell you that I did not feel at all happy!
What! deceive Julien? become the lover of this little, silly, wrong-
headed, deceitful woman, who was, no doubt, terribly sensual, and whom
her husband no longer satisfied.
"To betray him continually, to deceive him, to play at being in love
merely because I was attracted by forbidden fruit, by the danger incurred
and the friendship betrayed! No, that did not suit me, but what was I to
do? To imitate Joseph would be acting a very stupid and, moreover,
difficult part, for this woman was enchanting in her perfidy, inflamed by
audacity, palpitating and excited. Let the man who has never felt on his
lips the warm kiss of a woman who is ready to give herself to him throw
the first stone at me.
"Well, a minute more--you understand what I mean? A minute more, and--I
should have been--no, she would have been!--I beg your pardon, he would
have been--when a loud noise made us both jump up. The log had fallen
into the room, knocking over the fire irons and the fender, and on to the
carpet, which it had scorched, and had rolled under an armchair, which it
would certainly set alight.
"I jumped up like a madman, and, as I was replacing on the fire that log
which had saved me, the door opened hastily, and Julien came in.
"'I am free,' he said, with evident pleasure. 'The business was over two
hours sooner than I expected!'
"Yes, my dear friend, without that log, I should have been caught in the
very act, and you know what the consequences would have been!
"You may be sure that I took good care never to be found in a similar
situation again, never, never. Soon afterward I saw that Julien was
giving me the 'cold shoulder,' as they say. His wife was evidently
undermining our friendship. By degrees he got rid of me, and we have
altogether ceased to meet.
"I never married, which ought not to surprise you, I think."
Two years ago this spring I was making a walking tour along the shore of
the Mediterranean. Is there anything more pleasant than to meditate
while walking at a good pace along a highway? One walks in the sunlight,
through the caressing breeze, at the foot of the mountains, along the
coast of the sea. And one dreams! What a flood of illusions, loves,
adventures pass through a pedestrian's mind during a two hours' march!
What a crowd of confused and joyous hopes enter into you with the mild,
light air! You drink them in with the breeze, and they awaken in your
heart a longing for happiness which increases with the hun ger induced by
walking. The fleeting, charming ideas fly and sing like birds.
I was following that long road which goes from Saint Raphael to Italy,
or, rather, that long, splendid panoramic highway which seems made for
the representation of all the love-poems of earth. And I thought that
from Cannes, where one poses, to Monaco, where one gambles, people come
to this spot of the earth for hardly any other purpose than to get
embroiled or to throw away money on chance games, displaying under this
delicious sky and in this garden of roses and oranges all base vanities
and foolish pretensions and vile lusts, showing up the human mind such as
it is, servile, ignorant, arrogant and full of cupidity.
Suddenly I saw some villas in one of those ravishing bays that one meets
at every turn of the mountain; there were only four or five fronting the
sea at the foot of the mountains, and behind them a wild fir wood slopes
into two great valleys, that were untraversed by roads. I stopped short
before one of these chalets, it was so pretty: a small white house with
brown trimmings, overrun with rambler roses up to the top.
The garden was a mass of flowers, of all colors and all kinds, mixed in a
coquettish, well-planned disorder. The lawn was full of them, big pots
flanked each side of every step of the porch, pink or yellow clusters
framed each window, and the terrace with the stone balustrade, which
enclosed this pretty little dwelling, had a garland of enormous red
bells, like drops of blood. Behind the house I saw a long avenue of
orange trees in blossom, which went up to the foot of the mountain.
Over the door appeared the name, "Villa d'Antan," in small gold letters.
I asked myself what poet or what fairy was living there, what inspired,
solitary being had discovered this spot and created this dream house,
which seemed to nestle in a nosegay.
A workman was breaking stones up the street, and I went to him to ask the
name of the proprietor of this jewel.
"It is Madame Julie Romain," he replied.
Julie Romain! In my childhood, long ago, I had heard them speak of this
great actress, the rival of Rachel.
No woman ever was more applauded and more loved--especially more loved!
What duets and suicides on her account and what sensational adventures!
How old was this seductive woman now? Sixty, seventy, seventy-five!
Julie Romain here, in this house! The woman who had been adored by the
greatest musician and the most exquisite poet of our land! I still
remember the sensation (I was then twelve years of age) which her flight
to Sicily with the latter, after her rupture with the former, caused
She had left one evening, after a premiere, where the audience had
applauded her for a whole half hour, and had recalled her eleven times in
succession. She had gone away with the poet, in a post-chaise, as was
the fashion then; they had crossed the sea, to love each other in that
antique island, the daughter of Greece, in that immense orange wood which
surrounds Palermo, and which is called the "Shell of Gold."
People told of their ascension of Mount Etna and how they had leaned over
the immense crater, arm in arm, cheek to cheek, as if to throw themselves
into the very abyss.
Now he was dead, that maker of verses so touching and so profound that
they turned, the heads of a whole generation, so subtle and so mysterious
that they opened a new world to the younger poets.
The other one also was dead--the deserted one, who had attained through
her musical periods that are alive in the memories of all, periods of
triumph and of despair, intoxicating triumph and heartrending despair.
And she was there, in that house veiled by flowers.
I did not hesitate, but rang the bell.
A small servant answered, a boy of eighteen with awkward mien and clumsy
hands. I wrote in pencil on my card a gallant compliment to the actress,
begging her to receive me. Perhaps, if she knew my name, she would open
her door to me.
The little valet took it in, and then came back, asking me to follow him.
He led me to a neat and decorous salon, furnished in the Louis-Philippe
style, with stiff and heavy furniture, from which a little maid of
sixteen, slender but not pretty, took off the covers in my honor.
Then I was left alone.
On the walls hung three portraits, that of the actress in one of her
roles, that of the poet in his close-fitting greatcoat and the ruffled
shirt then in style, and that of the musician seated at a piano.
She, blond, charming, but affected, according to the fashion of her day,
was smiling, with her pretty mouth and blue eyes; the painting was
careful, fine, elegant, but lifeless.
Those faces seemed to be already looking upon posterity.
The whole place had the air of a bygone time, of days that were done and
men who had vanished.
A door opened and a little woman entered, old, very old, very small, with
white hair and white eyebrows, a veritable white mouse, and as quick and
furtive of movement.
She held out her hand to me, saying in a voice still fresh, sonorous and
"Thank you, monsieur. How kind it is of the men of to-day to remember
the women of yesterday! Sit down."
I told her that her house had attracted me, that I had inquired for the
proprietor's name, and that, on learning it, I could not resist the
desire to ring her bell.
"This gives me all the more pleasure, monsieur," she replied, "as it is
the first time that such a thing has happened. When I received your
card, with the gracious note, I trembled as if an old friend who had
disappeared for twenty years had been announced to me. I am like a dead
body, whom no one remembers, of whom no one will think until the day when
I shall actually die; then the newspapers will mention Julie Romain for
three days, relating anecdotes and details of my life, reviving memories,
and praising me greatly. Then all will be over with me."
After a few moments of silence, she continued:
"And this will not be so very long now. In a few months, in a few days,
nothing will remain but a little skeleton of this little woman who is now
She raised her eyes toward her portrait, which smiled down upon this
caricature of herself; then she looked at those of the two men, the
disdainful poet and the inspired musician, who seemed to say: "What does
this ruin want of us?"
An indefinable, poignant, irresistible sadness overwhelmed my heart, the
sadness of existences that have had their day, but who are still debating
with their memories, like a person drowning in deep water.
From my seat I could see on the highroad the handsome carriages that were
whirling from Nice to Monaco; inside them I saw young, pretty, rich and
happy women and smiling, satisfied men. Following my eye, she understood
my thought and murmured with a smile of resignation:
"One cannot both be and have been."
"How beautiful life must have been for you!" I said.
She heaved a great sigh.
"Beautiful and sweet! And for that reason I regret it so much."
I saw that she was disposed to talk of herself, so I began to question
her, gently and discreetly, as one might touch bruised flesh.
She spoke of her successes, her intoxications and her friends, of her
whole triumphant existence.
"Was it on the stage that you found your most intense joys, your true
happiness?" I asked.
"Oh, no!" she replied quickly.
I smiled; then, raising her eyes to the two portraits, she said, with a
"It was with them."
"Which one?" I could not help asking.
"Both. I even confuse them up a little now in my old woman's memory, and
then I feel remorse."
"Then, madame, your acknowledgment is not to them, but to Love itself.
They were merely its interpreters."
"That is possible. But what interpreters!"
"Are you sure that you have not been, or that you might not have been,
loved as well or better by a simple man, but not a great man, who would
have offered to you his whole life and heart, all his thoughts, all his
days, his whole being, while these gave you two redoubtable rivals, Music
"No, monsieur, no!" she exclaimed emphatically, with that still youthful
voice, which caused the soul to vibrate. "Another one might perhaps have
loved me more, but he would not have loved me as these did. Ah! those
two sang to me of the music of love as no one else in the world could
have sung of it. How they intoxicated me! Could any other man express
what they knew so well how to express in tones and in words? Is it
enough merely to love if one cannot put all the poetry and all the music
of heaven and earth into love? And they knew how to make a woman
delirious with songs and with words. Yes, perhaps there was more of
illusion than of reality in our passion; but these illusions lift you
into the clouds, while realities always leave you trailing in the dust.
If others have loved me more, through these two I have understood, felt
and worshipped love."
Suddenly she began to weep.
She wept silently, shedding tears of despair.
I pretended not to see, looking off into the distance. She resumed,
after a few minutes:
"You see, monsieur, with nearly every one the heart ages with the body.
But this has not happened with me. My body is sixty-nine years old,
while my poor heart is only twenty. And that is the reason why I live
all alone, with my flowers and my dreams."
There was a long silence between us. She grew calmer and continued,
"How you would laugh at me, if you knew, if you knew how I pass my
evenings, when the weather is fine. I am ashamed and I pity myself at
the same time."
Beg as I might, she would not tell me what she did. Then I rose to
"Already!" she exclaimed.
And as I said that I wished to dine at Monte Carlo, she asked timidly:
"Will you not dine with me? It would give me a great deal of pleasure."
I accepted at once. She rang, delighted, and after giving some orders to
the little maid she took me over her house.
A kind of glass-enclosed veranda, filled with shrubs, opened into the
dining-room, revealing at the farther end the long avenue of orange trees
extending to the foot of the mountain. A low seat, hidden by plants,
indicated that the old actress often came there to sit down.
Then we went into the garden, to look at the flowers. Evening fell
softly, one of those calm, moist evenings when the earth breathes forth
all her perfumes. Daylight was almost gone when we sat down at table.
The dinner was good and it lasted a long time, and we became intimate
friends, she and I, when she understood what a profound sympathy she had
aroused in my heart. She had taken two thimblefuls of wine, as the
phrase goes, and had grown more confiding and expansive.
"Come, let us look at the moon," she said. "I adore the good moon. She
has been the witness of my most intense joys. It seems to me that all my
memories are there, and that I need only look at her to bring them all
back to me. And even--some times--in the evening--I offer to myself a
pretty play--yes, pretty--if you only knew! But no, you would laugh at
me. I cannot--I dare not--no, no--really--no."
I implored her to tell me what it was.
"Come, now! come, tell me; I promise you that I will not laugh. I swear
it to you--come, now!"
She hesitated. I took her hands--those poor little hands, so thin and so
cold!--and I kissed them one after the other, several times, as her
lovers had once kissed them. She was moved and hesitated.
"You promise me not to laugh?"
"Yes, I swear it to you."
"Well, then, come."
She rose, and as the little domestic, awkward in his green livery,
removed the chair behind her, she whispered quickly a few words into his
"Yes, madame, at once," he replied.
She took my arm and led me to the veranda.
The avenue of oranges was really splendid to see. The full moon made a
narrow path of silver, a long bright line, which fell on the yellow sand,
between the round, opaque crowns of the dark trees.
As these trees were in bloom, their strong, sweet perfume filled the
night, and swarming among their dark foliage I saw thousands of
fireflies, which looked like seeds fallen from the stars.
"Oh, what a setting for a love scene!" I exclaimed.
"Is it not true? Is it not true? You will see!"
And she made me sit down beside her.
"This is what makes one long for more life. But you hardly think of
these things, you men of to-day. You are speculators, merchants and men
"You no longer even know how to talk to us. When I say 'you,' I mean
young men in general. Love has been turned into a liaison which very
often begins with an unpaid dressmaker's bill. If you think the bill is
dearer than the woman, you disappear; but if you hold the woman more
highly, you pay it. Nice morals--and a nice kind of love!"
She took my hand.
I looked, astonished and delighted. Down there at the end of the avenue,
in the moonlight, were two young people, with their arms around each
other's waist. They were walking along, interlaced, charming, with
short, little steps, crossing the flakes of light; which illuminated them
momentarily, and then sinking back into the shadow. The youth was
dressed in a suit of white satin, such as men wore in the eighteenth
century, and had on a hat with an ostrich plume. The girl was arrayed in
a gown with panniers, and the high, powdered coiffure of the handsome
dames of the time of the Regency.
They stopped a hundred paces from us, and standing in the middle of the
avenue, they kissed each other with graceful gestures.
Suddenly I recognized the two little servants. Then one of those
dreadful fits of laughter that convulse you made me writhe in my chair.
But I did not laugh aloud. I resisted, convulsed and feeling almost ill,
as a man whose leg is cut off resists the impulse to cry out.
As the young pair turned toward the farther end of the avenue they again
became delightful. They went farther and farther away, finally
disappearing as a dream disappears. I no longer saw them. The avenue
seemed a sad place.
I took my leave at once, so as not to see them again, for I guessed that
this little play would last a long time, awakening, as it did, a whole
past of love and of stage scenery; the artificial past, deceitful and
seductive, false but charming, which still stirred the heart of this
amorous old comedienne.
THE RONDOLI SISTERS
I set out to see Italy thoroughly on two occasions, and each time I was
stopped at the frontier and could not get any further. So I do not know
Italy, said my friend, Charles Jouvent. And yet my two attempts gave me
a charming idea of the manners of that beautiful country. Some time,
however, I must visit its cities, as well as the museums and works of art
with which it abounds. I will make another attempt to penetrate into the
interior, which I have not yet succeeded in doing.
You don't understand me, so I will explain: In the spring of 1874 I was
seized with an irresistible desire to see Venice, Florence, Rome and
Naples. I am, as you know, not a great traveller; it appears to me a
useless and fatiguing business. Nights spent in a train, the disturbed
slumbers of the railway carriage, with the attendant headache, and
stiffness in every limb, the sudden waking in that rolling box, the
unwashed feeling, with your eyes and hair full of dust, the smell of the
coal on which one's lungs feed, those bad dinners in the draughty
refreshment rooms are, according to my ideas, a horrible way of beginning
a pleasure trip.
After this introduction, we have the miseries of the hotel; of some great
hotel full of people, and yet so empty; the strange room and the doubtful
I am most particular about my bed; it is the sanctuary of life. We
entrust our almost naked and fatigued bodies to it so that they may be
reanimated by reposing between soft sheets and feathers.
There we find the most delightful hours of our existence, the hours of
love and of sleep. The bed is sacred, and should be respected, venerated
and loved by us as the best and most delightful of our earthly
I cannot lift up the sheets of a hotel bed without a shudder of disgust.
Who has occupied it the night before? Perhaps dirty, revolting people
have slept in it. I begin, then, to think of all the horrible people
with whom one rubs shoulders every day, people with suspicious-looking
skin which makes one think of the feet and all the rest! I call to mind
those who carry about with them the sickening smell of garlic or of
humanity. I think of those who are deformed and unhealthy, of the
perspiration emanating from the sick, of everything that is ugly and
filthy in man.
And all this, perhaps, in the bed in which I am about to sleep! The mere
idea of it makes me feel ill as I get into it.
And then the hotel dinners--those dreary table d'hote dinners in the
midst of all sorts of extraordinary people, or else those terrible
solitary dinners at a small table in a restaurant, feebly lighted by a
wretched composite candle under a shade.
Again, those terribly dull evenings in some un known town! Do you know
anything more wretched than the approach of. dusk on such an occasion?
One goes about as if almost in a dream, looking at faces that one never
has seen before and never will see again; listening to people talking
about matters which are quite indifferent to you in a language that
perhaps you do not understand. You have a terrible feeling, almost as if
you were lost, and you continue to walk on so as not to be obliged to
return to the hotel, where you would feel more lost still because you are
at home, in a home which belongs to anyone who can pay for it; and at
last you sink into a chair of some well-lighted cafe, whose gilding and
lights oppress you a thousand times more than the shadows in the streets.
Then you feel so abominably lonely sitting in front of the glass of flat
bock beer that a kind of madness seizes you, the longing to go somewhere
or other, no matter where, as long as you need not remain in front of
that marble table amid those dazzling lights.
And then, suddenly, you are aware that you are really alone in the world,
always and everywhere, and that in places which we know, the familiar
jostlings give us the illusion only of human fraternity. At such moments
of self-abandonment and sombre isolation in distant cities one thinks
broadly, clearly and profoundly. Then one suddenly sees the whole of
life outside the vision of eternal hope, apart from the deceptions of our
innate habits, and of our expectations of happiness, which we indulge in
dreams never to be realized.
It is only by going a long distance from home that we can fully
understand how short-lived and empty everything near at hand is; by
searching for the unknown, we perceive how commonplace and evanescent
everything is; only by wandering over the face of the earth can we
understand how small the world is, and how very much alike it is
How well I know, and how I hate and almost fear, those haphazard walks
through unknown streets; and this was the reason why, as nothing would
induce me to undertake a tour in Italy by myself, I made up my mind to
accompany my friend Paul Pavilly.
You know Paul, and how he idealizes women. To him the earth is habitable
only because they are there; the sun gives light and is warm because it
shines upon them; the air is soft and balmy because it blows upon their
skin and ruffles the soft hair on their temples; and the moon is charming
because it makes them dream and imparts a languorous charm to love.
Every act and action of Paul's has woman for its motive; all his
thoughts, all his efforts and hopes are centered in them.
When I mentioned Italy to Paul he at first absolutely refused to leave
Paris. I, however, began to tell him of the adventures I had on my
travels. I assured him that all Italian women are charming, and I made
him hope for the most refined pleasures at Naples, thanks to certain
letters of introduction which I had; and so at last he allowed himself to
We took the express one Thursday evening, Paul and I. Hardly anyone goes
south at that time of the year, so that we had the carriages to
ourselves, and both of us were in a bad temper on leaving Paris, sorry
for having yielded to the temptation of this journey, and regretting
Marly, the Seine, and our lazy boating excursions, and all those
pleasures in and near Paris which are so dear to every true Parisian.
As soon as the train started Paul stuck himself in his corner, and said,
"It is most idiotic to go all that distance," and as it was too late for
him to change his mind then, I said, "Well, you should not have come."
He made no answer, and I felt very much inclined to laugh when I saw how
furious he looked. He is certainly always rather like a squirrel, but
then every one of us has retained the type of some animal or other as the
mark of his primitive origin. How many people have jaws like a bulldog,
or heads like goats, rabbits, foxes, horses, or oxen. Paul is a squirrel
turned into a man. He has its bright, quick eyes, its hair, its pointed
nose, its small, fine, supple, active body, and a certain mysterious
resemblance in his general bearing; in fact, a similarity of movement, of
gesture, and of bearing which might almost be taken for a recollection.
At last we both went to sleep with that uncomfortable slumber of the
railway carriage, which is interrupted by horrible cramps in the arms and
neck, and by the sudden stoppages of the train.
We woke up as we were passing along the Rhone. Soon the continued noise
of crickets came in through the windows, that cry which seems to be the
voice of the warm earth, the song of Provence; and seemed to instill into
our looks, our breasts, and our souls the light and happy feeling of the
south, that odor of the parched earth, of the stony and light soil of the
olive with its gray-green foliage.
When the train stopped again a railway guard ran along the train calling
out "Valence" in a sonorous voice, with an accent that again gave us a
taste of that Provence which the shrill note of the crickets had already
imparted to us.
Nothing fresh happened till we got to Marseilles, where we alighted for
breakfast, but when we returned to our carriage we found a woman
Paul, with a delighted glance at me, gave his short mustache a mechanical
twirl, and passed his fingers through his, hair, which. had become
slightly out of order with the night's journey. Then he sat down
opposite the newcomer.
Whenever I happen to see a striking new face, either in travelling or in
society, I always have the strongest inclination to find out what
character, mind, and intellectual capacities are hidden beneath those
She was a young and pretty woman, certainly a native of the south of
France, with splendid eyes, beautiful wavy black hair, which was so thick
and long that it seemed almost too heavy for her head. She was dressed
with a certain southern bad taste which made her look a little vulgar.
Her regular features had none of the grace and finish of the refined
races, of that slight delicacy which members of the aristocracy inherit
from their birth, and which is the hereditary mark of thinner blood.
Her bracelets were too big to be of gold; she wore earrings with large
white stones that were certainly not diamonds, and she belonged
unmistakably to the People. One surmised that she would talk too loud,
and shout on every occasion with exaggerated gestures.
When the train started she remained motionless in her place, in the
attitude of a woman who was indignant, without even looking at us.
Paul began to talk to me, evidently with an eye to effect, trying to
attract her attention, as shopkeepers expose their choice wares to catch
the notice of passersby.
She, however, did not appear to be paying the least attention.
"Toulon! Ten minutes to wait! Refreshment room!" the porters shouted.
Paul motioned to me to get out, and as soon as we had done so, he said:
"I wonder who on earth she can be?"
I began to laugh. "I am sure I don't know, and I don't in the least
He was quite excited.
"She is an uncommonly fresh and pretty girl. What eyes she has, and how
cross she looks. She must have been dreadfully worried, for she takes no
notice of anything."
"You will have all your trouble for nothing," I growled.
He began to lose his temper.
"I am not taking any trouble, my dear fellow. I think her an extremely
pretty woman, that is all. If one could only speak to her! But I don't
know how to begin. Cannot you give me an idea? Can't you guess who she
"Upon my word, I cannot. However, I should rather think she is some
strolling actress who is going to rejoin her company after a love
He seemed quite upset, as if I had said something insulting.
"What makes you think that? On the contrary, I think she looks most
"Just look at her bracelets," I said, "her earrings and her whole dress.
I should not be the least surprised if she were a dancer or a circus
rider, but most likely a dancer. Her whole style smacks very much of the
He evidently did not like the idea.
"She is much too young, I am sure; why, she is hardly twenty."
"Well," I replied, "there are many things which one can do before one is
twenty; dancing and elocution are among them."
"Take your seats for Nice, Vintimiglia," the guards and porters called.
We got in; our fellow passenger was eating an orange, and certainly she
did not do it elegantly. She had spread her pocket-handkerchief on her
knees, and the way in which she tore off the peel and opened her mouth to
put in the pieces, and then spat the pips out of the window, showed that
her training had been decidedly vulgar.
She seemed, also, more put out than ever, and swallowed the fruit with an
exceedingly comic air of rage.
Paul devoured her with his eyes, and tried to attract her attention and
excite her curiosity; but in spite of his talk, and of the manner in
which he brought in well-known names, she did not pay the least attention
After passing Frejus and St. Raphael, the train passed through a
veritable garden, a paradise of roses, and groves of oranges and lemons
covered with fruits and flowers at the same time. That delightful coast
from Marseilles to Genoa is a kingdom of perfumes in a home of flowers.
June is the time to see it in all its beauty, when in every narrow valley
and on every slope, the most exquisite flowers are growing luxuriantly.
And the roses! fields, hedges, groves of roses. They climb up the walls,
blossom on the roofs, hang from the trees, peep out from among the
bushes; they are white, red, yellow, large and small, single, with a
simple self-colored dress, or full and heavy in brilliant toilettes.
Their breath makes the air heavy and relaxing, and the still more
penetrating odor of the orange blossoms sweetens the atmosphere till it
might almost be called the refinement of odor.
The shore, with its brown rocks, was bathed by the motionless
Mediterranean. The hot summer sun stretched like a fiery cloth over the
mountains, over the long expanses of sand, and over the motionless,
apparently solid blue sea. The train went on through the tunnels, along
the slopes, above the water, on straight, wall-like viaducts, and a soft,
vague, saltish smell, a smell of drying seaweed, mingled at times with
the strong, heavy perfume of the flowers.
But Paul neither saw, looked at, nor smelled anything, for our fellow
traveller engrossed all his attention.
When we reached Cannes, as he wished to speak to me he signed to me to
get out, and as soon as I did so, he took me by the arm.
"Do you know, she is really charming. Just look at her eyes; and I never
saw anything like her hair."
"Don't excite yourself," I replied, "or else address her, if you have any
intentions that way. She does not look unapproachable; I fancy, although
she appear to be a little bit grumpy."
"Why don't you speak to her?" he said.
"I don't know what to say, for I am always terribly stupid at first; I
can never make advances to a woman in the street. I follow them, go
round and round them, and quite close to them, but never know what to say
at first. I only once tried to enter into conversation with a woman in
that way. As I clearly saw that she was waiting for me to make
overtures, and as I felt bound to say something, I stammered out, 'I hope
you are quite well, madame?' She laughed in my face, and I made my
I promised Paul to do all I could to bring about a conversation, and when
we had taken our places again, I politely asked our neighbor:
"Have you any objection to the smell of tobacco, madame?"
She merely replied, "Non capisco."
So she was an Italian! I felt an absurd inclination to laugh. As Paul
did not understand a word of that language, I was obliged to act as his
interpreter, so I said in Italian:
"I asked you, madame, whether you had any objection to tobacco smoke?"
With an angry look she replied, "Che mi fa!"
She had neither turned her head nor looked at me, and I really did not
know whether to take this "What do I care" for an authorization, a
refusal, a real sign of indifference, or for a mere "Let me alone."
"Madame," I replied, "if you mind the smell of tobacco in the least--"
She again said, "Mica," in a tone which seemed to mean, "I wish to
goodness you would leave me alone!" It was, however, a kind of
permission, so I said to Paul:
"You may smoke."
He looked at me in that curious sort of way that people have when they
try to understand others who are talking in a strange language before
them, and asked me:
"What did you say to her?"
"I asked whether we might smoke, and she said we might do whatever we
Whereupon I lighted my cigar.
"Did she say anything more?"
"If you had counted her words you would have noticed that she used
exactly six, two of which gave me to understand that she knew no French,
so four remained, and much can be said in four words."
Paul seemed quite unhappy, disappointed, and at sea, so to speak.
But suddenly the Italian asked me, in that tone of discontent which
seemed habitual to her, "Do you know at what time we shall get to Genoa?"
"At eleven o'clock," I replied. Then after a moment I went on:
"My friend and I are also going to Genoa, and if we can be of any service
to you, we shall be very happy, as you are quite alone." But she
interrupted with such a "Mica!" that I did not venture on another word.
"What did she say?" Paul asked.
"She said she thought you were charming."
But he was in no humor for joking, and begged me dryly not to make fun of
him; so I translated her question and my polite offer, which had been so
Then he really became as restless as a caged squirrel.
"If we only knew," he said, "what hotel she was going to, we would go to
the same. Try to find out so as to have another opportunity to make her
It was not particularly easy, and I did not know what pretext to invent,
desirous as I was to make the acquaintance of this unapproachable person.
We passed Nice, Monaco, Mentone, and the train stopped at the frontier
for the examination of luggage.
Although I hate those ill-bred people who breakfast and dine in railway-
carriages, I went and bought a quantity of good things to make one last
attack on her by their means. I felt sure that this girl must,
ordinarily, be by no means inaccessible. Something had put her out and
made her irritable, but very little would suffice, a mere word or some
agreeable offer, to decide her and vanquish her.
We started again, and we three were still alone. I spread my eatables on
the seat. I cut up the fowl, put the slices of ham neatly on a piece of
paper, and then carefully laid out our dessert, strawberries, plums,
cherries and cakes, close to the girl.
When she saw that we were about to eat she took a piece of chocolate and
two little crisp cakes out of her pocket and began to munch them.
"Ask her to have some of ours," Paul said in a whisper.
"That is exactly what I wish to do, but it is rather a difficult matter."
As she, however, glanced from time to time at our provisions, I felt sure
that she would still be hungry when she had finished what she had with
her; so, as soon as her frugal meal was over, I said to her:
"It would be very kind of you if you would take some of this fruit."
Again she said "Mica!" but less crossly than before.
"Well, then," I said, "may I offer you a little wine? I see you have not
drunk anything. It is Italian wine, and as we are now in your own
country, we should be very pleased to see such a pretty Italian mouth
accept the offer of its French neighbors."
She shook her head slightly, evidently wishing to refuse, but very
desirous of accepting, and her mica this time was almost polite. I took
the flask, which was covered with straw in the Italian fashion, and
filling the glass, I offered it to her.
"Please drink it," I said, "to bid us welcome to your country."
She took the glass with her usual look, and emptied it at a draught, like
a woman consumed with thirst, and then gave it back to me without even
saying "Thank you."
I then offered her the cherries. "Please take some," I said; "we shall
be so glad if you will."
Out of her corner she looked at all the fruit spread out beside her, and
said so rapidly that I could scarcely follow her: "A me non piacciono ne
le ciriegie ne le susine; amo soltano le fragole."
"What does she say?" Paul asked.
"That she does riot care for cherries or plums, but only for
I put a newspaper full of wild strawberries on her lap, and she ate them
quickly, tossing them into her mouth from some distance in a coquettish
and charming manner.
When she had finished the little red heap, which soon disappeared under
the rapid action of her hands, I asked her:
"What may I offer you now?"
"I will take a little chicken," she replied.
She certainly devoured half of it, tearing it to pieces with the rapid
movements of her jaws like some carnivorous animal. Then she made up her
mind to have some cherries, which she "did not like," and then some
plums, then some little cakes. Then she said, "I have had enough," and
sat back in her corner.
I was much amused, and tried to make her eat more, insisting, in fact,
till she suddenly flew into a rage, and flung such a furious mica at me,
that I would no longer run the risk of spoiling her digestion.
I turned to my friend. "My poor Paul," I said, "I am afraid we have had
our trouble for nothing."
The night came on, one of those hot summer nights which extend their warm
shade over the burning and exhausted earth. Here and there, in the
distance, by the sea, on capes and promontories, bright stars, which I
was, at times, almost inclined to confound with lighthouses, began to
shine on the dark horizon:
The scent of the orange trees became more penetrating, and we breathed
with delight, distending our lungs to inhale it more deeply. The balmy
air was soft, delicious, almost divine.
Suddenly I noticed something like a shower of stars under the dense shade
of the trees along the line, where it was quite dark. It might have been
taken for drops of light, leaping, flying, playing and running among the
leaves, or for small stars fallen from the skies in order to have an
excursion on the earth; but they were only fireflies dancing a strange
fiery ballet in the perfumed air.
One of them happened to come into our carriage, and shed its intermittent
light, which seemed to be extinguished one moment and to be burning the
next. I covered the carriage-lamp with its blue shade and watched the
strange fly careering about in its fiery flight. Suddenly it settled on
the dark hair of our neighbor, who was half dozing after dinner. Paul
seemed delighted, with his eyes fixed on the bright, sparkling spot,
which looked like a living jewel on the forehead of the sleeping woman.
The Italian woke up about eleven o'clock, with the bright insect still in
her hair. When I saw her move, I said: "We are just getting to Genoa,
madame," and she murmured, without answering me, as if possessed by some
obstinate and embarrassing thought:
"What am I going to do, I wonder?"
And then she suddenly asked:
"Would you like me to come with you?"
I was so taken aback that I really did not understand her.
"With us? How do you mean?"
She repeated, looking more and more furious:
"Would you like me to be your guide now, as soon as we get out of the
"I am quite willing; but where do you want to go."
She shrugged her shoulders with an air of supreme indifference.
"Wherever you like; what does it matter to me?" She repeated her "Che mi
"But we are going to the hotel."
"Very well, let us all go to the hotel," she said, in a contemptuous
I turned to Paul, and said:
"She wishes to know whether we should like her to come with us."
My friend's utter surprise restored my self-possession. He stammered:
"With us? Where to? What for? How?"
"I don't know, but she made this strange proposal to me in a most
irritated voice. I told her that we were going to the hotel, and she
said: 'Very well, let us all go there!' I suppose she is without a penny.
She certainly has a very strange way of making acquaintances."
Paul, who 'was very much excited, exclaimed:
"I am quite agreeable. Tell her that we will go wherever she likes."
Then, after a moment's hesitation, he said uneasily:
"We must know, however, with whom she wishes to go--with you or with me?"
I turned to the Italian, who did not even seem to be listening to us, and
"We shall be very happy to have you with us, but my friend wishes to know
whether you will take my arm or his?"
She opened her black eyes wide with vague surprise, and said, "Che ni
I was obliged to explain myself. "In Italy, I believe, when a man looks
after a woman, fulfils all her wishes, and satisfies all her caprices, he
is called a patito. Which of us two will you take for your patito?"
Without the slightest hesitation she replied:
I turned to Paul. "You see, my friend, she chooses me; you have no
"All the better for you," he replied in a rage. Then, after thinking for
a few moments, he went on:
"Do you really care about taking this creature with you? She will spoil
our journey. What are we to do with this woman, who looks like I don't
know what? They will not take us in at any decent hotel."
I, however, just began to find the Italian much nicer than I had thought
her at first, and I was now very desirous to take her with us. The idea
I replied, "My dear fellow, we have accepted, and it is too late to
recede. You were the first to advise me to say 'Yes.'"
"It is very stupid," he growled, "but do as you please."
The train whistled, slackened speed, and we ran into the station.
I got out of the carriage, and offered my new companion my hand. She
jumped out lightly, and I gave her my arm, which she took with an air of
seeming repugnance. As soon as we had claimed our luggage we set off
into the town, Paul walking in utter silence.
"To what hotel shall we go?" I asked him. "It may be difficult to get
into the City of Paris with a woman, especially with this Italian."
Paul interrupted me. "Yes, with an Italian who looks more like a dancer
than a duchess. However, that is no business of mine. Do just as you
I was in a state of perplexity. I had written to the City of Paris to
retain our rooms, and now I did not know what to do.
Two commissionaires followed us with our luggage. I continued: "You
might as well go on first, and say that we are coming; and give the
landlord to understand that I have a--a friend with me and that we should
like rooms quite by themselves for us three, so as not to be brought in
contact with other travellers. He will understand, and we will decide
according to his answer."
But Paul growled, "Thank you, such commissions and such parts do not suit
me, by any means. I did not come here to select your apartments or to
minister to your pleasures."
But I was urgent: "Look here, don't be angry. It is surely far better to
go to a good hotel than to a bad one, and it is not difficult to ask the
landlord for three separate bedrooms and a dining-room."
I put a stress on three, and that decided him.
He went on first, and I saw him go into a large hotel while I remained on
the other side of the street, with my fair Italian, who did not say a
word, and followed the porters with the luggage.
Paul came back at last, looking as dissatisfied as my companion.
"That is settled," he said, "and they will take us in; but here are only
two bedrooms. You must settle it as you can."
I followed him, rather ashamed of going in with such a strange companion.
There were two bedrooms separated by a small sitting-room. I ordered a
cold supper, and then I turned to the Italian with a perplexed look.
"We have only been able to get two rooms, so you must choose which you
She replied with her eternal "Che mi fa!" I thereupon took up her little
black wooden trunk, such as servants use, and took it into the room on
the right, which I had chosen for her. A bit of paper was fastened to
the box, on which was written, Mademoiselle Francesca Rondoli, Genoa.
"Your name is Francesca?" I asked, and she nodded her head, without
"We shall have supper directly," I continued. "Meanwhile, I dare say you
would like to arrange your toilette a little?"
She answered with a 'mica', a word which she employed just as frequently
as 'Che me fa', but I went on: "It is always pleasant after a journey."
Then I suddenly remembered that she had not, perhaps, the necessary
requisites, for she appeared to me in a very singular position, as if she
had just escaped from some disagreeable adventure, and I brought her my
I put out all the little instruments for cleanliness and comfort which it
contained: a nail-brush, a new toothbrush--I always carry a selection of
them about with me--my nail-scissors, a nail-file, and sponges. I
uncorked a bottle of eau de cologne, one of lavender-water, and a little
bottle of new-mown hay, so that she might have a choice. Then I opened
my powder-box, and put out the powder-puff, placed my fine towels over
the water-jug, and a piece of new soap near the basin.
She watched my movements with a look of annoyance in her wide-open eyes,
without appearing either astonished or pleased at my forethought.
"Here is all that you require," I then said; "I will tell you when supper
When I returned to the sitting-room I found that Paul had shut himself in
the other room, so I sat down to wait.
A waiter went to and fro, bringing plates and glasses. He laid the table
slowly, then put a cold chicken on it, and told me that all was ready.
I knocked gently at Mademoiselle Rondoli's door. "Come in," she said,
and when I did so I was struck by a strong, heavy smell of perfumes, as
if I were in a hairdresser's shop.
The Italian was sitting on her trunk in an attitude either of thoughtful
discontent or absent-mindedness. The towel was still folded over the
waterjug that was full of water, and the soap, untouched and dry, was
lying beside the empty basin; but one would have thought that the young
woman had used half the contents of the bottles of perfume. The eau de
cologne, however, had been spared, as only about a third of it had gone;
but to make up for that she had used a surprising amount of lavender-
water and new-mown hay. A cloud of violet powder, a vague white mist,
seemed still to be floating in the air, from the effects of her over-
powdering her face and neck. It seemed to cover her eyelashes, eyebrows,
and the hair on her temples like snow, while her cheeks were plastered
with it, and layers of it covered her nostrils, the corners of her eyes,
and her chin.
When she got up she exhaled such a strong odor of perfume that it almost
made me feel faint.
When we sat down to supper, I found that Paul was in a most execrable
temper, and I could get nothing out of him but blame, irritable words,
and disagreeable remarks.
Mademoiselle Francesca ate like an ogre, and as soon as she had finished
her meal she threw herself upon the sofa in the sitting-room. Sitting
down beside her, I said gallantly, kissing her hand:
"Shall I have the bed prepared, or will you sleep on the couch?"
"It is all the same to me. 'Che mi fa'!"
Her indifference vexed me.
"Should you like to retire at once?"
"Yes; I am very sleepy."
She got up, yawned, gave her hand to Paul, who took it with a furious
look, and I lighted her into the bedroom. A disquieting feeling haunted
me. "Here is all you want," I said again.
The next morning she got up early, like a woman who is accustomed to
work. She woke me by doing so, and I watched her through my half-closed
She came and went without hurrying herself, as if she were astonished at
having nothing to do. At length she went to the dressing-table, and in a
moment emptied all my bottles of perfume. She certainly also used some
water, but very little.
When she was quite dressed, she sat down on her trunk again, and clasping
one knee between her hands, she seemed to be thinking.
At that moment I pretended to first notice her, and said:
Without seeming in at all a better temper than the previous night, she
When I asked her whether she had slept well, she nodded her head, and
jumping out of bed, I went and kissed her.
She turned her face toward me like a child who is being kissed against
its will; but I took her tenderly in my arms, and gently pressed my lips
on her eyelids, which she closed with evident distaste under my kisses on
her fresh cheek and full lips, which she turned away.
"You don't seem to like being kissed," I said to her.
"Mica!" was her only answer.
I sat down on the trunk by her side, and passing my arm through hers, I
said: "Mica! mica! mica! in reply to everything. I shall call you
Mademoiselle Mica, I think."
For the first time I fancied that I saw the shadow of a smile on her
lips, but it passed by so quickly that I may have been mistaken.
"But if you never say anything but Mica, I shall not know what to do to
please you. Let me see; what shall we do to-day?"
She hesitated a moment, as if some fancy had flitted through her head,
and then she said carelessly: "It is all the same to me; whatever you
"Very well, Mademoiselle Mica, we will have a carriage and go for a
"As you please," she said.
Paul was waiting for us in the dining-room, looking as bored as third
parties usually do in love affairs. I assumed a delighted air, and shook
hands with him with triumphant energy.
"What are you thinking of doing?" he asked.
"First of all, we will go and see a little of the town, and then we might
get a carriage and take a drive in the neighborhood."
We breakfasted almost in silence, and then set out. I dragged Francesca
from palace to palace, and she either looked at nothing or merely glanced
carelessly at the various masterpieces. Paul followed us, growling all
sorts of disagreeable things. Then we all three took a drive in silence
into the country and returned to dinner.
The next day it was the same thing and the next day again; and on the
third Paul said to me: "Look here, I am going to leave you; I am not
going to stop here for three weeks watching you make love to this
I was perplexed and annoyed, for to my great surprise I had become
singularly attached to Francesca. A man is but weak and foolish, carried
away by the merest trifle, and a coward every time that his senses are
excited or mastered. I clung to this unknown girl, silent and
dissatisfied as she always was. I liked her somewhat ill-tempered face,
the dissatisfied droop of her mouth, the weariness of her look; I liked
her fatigued movements, the contemptuous way in which she let me kiss
her, the very indifference of her caresses. A secret bond, that
mysterious bond of physical love, which does not satisfy, bound me to
her. I told Paul so, quite frankly. He treated me as if I were a fool,
and then said:
"Very well, take her with you."
But she obstinately refused to leave Genoa, without giving any reason.
I besought, I reasoned, I promised, but all was of no avail, and so I
Paul declared that he would go by himself, and went so far as to pack up
his portmanteau; but he remained all the same.
Thus a fortnight passed. Francesca was always silent and irritable,
lived beside me rather than with me, responded to all my requirements and
all my propositions with her perpetual Che mi fa, or with her no less
My friend became more and more furious, but my only answer was, "You can
go if you are tired of staying. I am not detaining you."
Then he called me names, overwhelmed me with reproaches, and exclaimed:
"Where do you think I can go now? We had three weeks at our disposal,
and here is a fortnight gone! I cannot continue my journey now; and, in
any case, I am not going to Venice, Florence and Rome all by myself. But
you will pay for it, and more dearly than you think, most likely. You
are not going to bring a man all the way from Paris in order to shut him
up at a hotel in Genoa with an Italian adventuress."
When I told him, very calmly, to return to Paris, he exclaimed that he
intended to do so the very next day; but the next day he was still there,
still in a rage and swearing.
By this time we began to be known in the streets through which we
wandered from morning till night. Sometimes French people would turn
round astonished at meeting their fellow-countrymen in the company of
this girl with her striking costume, who looked singularly out of place,
not to say compromising, beside us.
She used to walk along, leaning on my arm, without looking at anything.
Why did she remain with me, with us, who seemed to do so little to amuse
her? Who was she? Where did she come from? What was she doing? Had
she any plan or idea? Where did she live? As an adventuress, or by
chance meetings? I tried in vain to find out and to explain it. The
better I knew her the more enigmatical she became. She seemed to be a
girl of poor family who had been taken away, and then cast aside and
lost. What did she think would become of her, or whom was she waiting
for? She certainly did not appear to be trying to make a conquest of me,
or to make any real profit out of me.
I tried to question her, to speak to her of her childhood and family; but
she never gave me an answer. I stayed with her, my heart unfettered and
my senses enchained, never wearied of holding her in my arms, that proud
and quarrelsome woman, captivated by my senses, or rather carried away,
overcome by a youthful, healthy, powerful charm, which emanated from her
fragrant person and from the well-molded lines of her body.
Another week passed, and the term of my journey was drawing on, for I had
to be back in Paris by the eleventh of July. By this time Paul had come
to take his part in the adventure, though still grumbling at me, while I
invented pleasures, distractions and excursions to amuse Francesca and my
friend; and in order to do this I gave myself a great amount of trouble.
One day I proposed an excursion to Sta Margarita, that charming little
town in the midst of gardens, hidden at the foot of a slope which
stretches far into the sea up to the village of Portofino. We three
walked along the excellent road which goes along the foot of the
mountain. Suddenly Francesca said to me: "I shall not be able to go with
you to-morrow; I must go and see some of my relatives."
That was all; I did not ask her any questions, as I was quite sure she
would not answer me.
The next morning she got up very early. When she spoke to me it was in a
constrained and hesitating voice:
"If I do not come back again, shall you come and fetch me?"
"Most certainly I shall," was my reply. "Where shall I go to find you?"
Then she explained: "You must go into the Street Victor-Emmanuel, down
the Falcone road and the side street San-Rafael and into the furniture
shop in the building at the right at the end of a court, and there you
must ask for Madame Rondoli. That is the place."
And so she went away, leaving me rather astonished.
When Paul saw that I was alone, he stammered out: "Where; is Francesca?"
And when I told him what had happened, he exclaimed:
"My dear fellow, let us make use of our opportunity, and bolt; as it is,
our time is up. Two days, more or less, make no difference. Let us go
at once; go and pack up your things. Off we go!"
But I refused. I could not, as I told him, leave the girl in that manner
after such companionship for nearly three weeks. At any rate, I ought to
say good-by to her, and make her accept a present; I certainly had no
intention of behaving badly to her.
But he would not listen; he pressed and worried me, but I would not give
I remained indoors for several hours, expecting Francesca's return, but
she did not come, and at last, at dinner, Paul said with a triumphant
"She has flown, my dear fellow; it is certainly very strange."
I must acknowledge that I was surprised and rather vexed. He laughed in
my face, and made fun of me.
"It is not exactly a bad way of getting rid of you, though rather
primitive. 'Just wait for me, I shall be back in a moment,' they often
say. How long are you going to wait? I should not wonder if you were
foolish enough to go and look for her at the address she gave you. 'Does
Madame Rondoli live here, please?' 'No, monsieur.' I'll bet that you are
longing to go there."
"Not in the least," I protested, "and I assure you that if she does not
come back to-morrow morning I shall leave by the express at eight
o'clock. I shall have waited twenty-four hours, and that is enough; my
conscience will be quite clear."
I spent an uneasy and unpleasant evening, for I really had at heart a
very tender feeling for her. I went to bed at twelve o'clock, and hardly
slept at all. I got up at six, called Paul, packed up my things, and two
hours later we set out for France together.
The next year, at just about the same period, I was seized as one is with
a periodical fever, with a new desire to go to Italy, and I immediately
made up my mind to carry it into effect. There is no doubt that every
really well-educated man ought to see Florence, Venice and Rome. This
travel has, also, the additional advantage of providing many subjects of
conversation in society, and of giving one an opportunity for bringing
forward artistic generalities which appear profound.
This time I went alone, and I arrived at Genoa at the same time as the
year before, but without any adventure on the road. I went to the same
hotel, and actually happened to have the same room.
I was hardly in bed when the recollection of Francesca which, since the
evening before, had been floating vaguely through my mind, haunted me
with strange persistency. I thought of her nearly the whole night, and
by degrees the wish to see her again seized me, a confused desire at
first, which gradually grew stronger and more intense. At last I made up
my mind to spend the next day in Genoa to try to find her, and if I
should not succeed, to take the evening train.
Early in the morning I set out on my search. I remembered the directions
she had given me when she left me, perfectly--Victor-Emmanuel Street,
house of the furniture-dealer, at the bottom of the yard on the right.
I found it without the least difficulty, and I knocked at the door of a
somewhat dilapidated-looking dwelling. It was opened by a stout woman,
who must have been very handsome, but who actually was only very dirty.
Although she had too much embonpoint, she still bore the lines of
majestic beauty; her untidy hair fell over her forehead and shoulders,
and one fancied one could see her floating about in an enormous dressing-
gown covered with spots of dirt and grease. Round her neck she wore a
great gilt necklace, and on her wrists were splendid bracelets of Genoa
In rather a hostile manner she asked me what I wanted, and I replied by
requesting her to tell me whether Francesca Rondoli lived there.
"What do you want with her?" she asked.
"I had the pleasure of meeting her last year, and I should like to see
The old woman looked at me suspiciously.
"Where did you meet her?" she asked.
"Why, here in Genoa itself."
"What is your name?"
I hesitated a moment, and then I told her. I had hardly done so when the
Italian put out her arms as if to embrace me. "Oh! you are the
Frenchman how glad I am to see you! But what grief you caused the poor
child! She waited for you a month; yes, a whole month. At first she
thought you would come to fetch her. She wanted to see whether you loved
her. If you only knew how she cried when she saw that you were not
coming! She cried till she seemed to have no tears left. Then she went
to the hotel, but you had gone. She thought that most likely you were
travelling in Italy, and that you would return by Genoa to fetch her, as
she would not go with you. And she waited more than a month, monsieur;
and she was so unhappy; so unhappy. I am her mother."
I really felt a little disconcerted, but I regained my self-possession,
"Where is she now?"
"She has gone to Paris with a painter, a delightful man, who loves her
very much, and who gives her everything that she wants. Just look at
what she sent me; they are very pretty, are they not?"
And she showed me, with quite southern animation, her heavy bracelets and
necklace. "I have also," she continued, "earrings with stones in them, a
silk dress, and some rings; but I only wear them on grand occasions.
Oh! she is very happy, monsieur, very happy. She will be so pleased
when I tell her you have been here. But pray come in and sit down. You
will take something or other, surely?"
But I refused, as I now wished to get away by the first train; but she
took me by the arm and pulled me in, saying:
"Please, come in; I must tell her that you have been in here."
I found myself in a small, rather dark room, furnished with only a table
and a few chairs.
She continued: "Oh, she is very happy now, very happy. When you met her
in the train she was very miserable; she had had an unfortunate love
affair in Marseilles, and she was coming home, poor child. But she liked
you at once, though she was still rather sad, you understand. Now she
has all she wants, and she writes and tells me everything that she does.
His name is Bellemin, and they say he is a great painter in your country.
He fell in love with her at first sight. But you will take a glass of
sirup?-it is very good. Are you quite alone, this year?"
"Yes," I said, "quite alone."
I felt an increasing inclination to laugh, as my first disappointment was
dispelled by what Mother Rondoli said. I was obliged; however, to drink
a glass of her sirup.
"So you are quite alone?" she continued. "How sorry I am that Francesca
is not here now; she would have been company for you all the time you
stayed. It is not very amusing to go about all by oneself, and she will
be very sorry also."
Then, as I was getting up to go, she exclaimed:
"But would you not like Carlotta to go with you? She knows all the walks
very well. She is my second daughter, monsieur."
No doubt she took my look of surprise for consent, for she opened the
inner door and called out up the dark stairs which I could not see:
"Carlotta! Carlotta! make haste down, my dear child."
I tried to protest, but she would not listen.
"No; she will be very glad to go with you; she is very nice, and much
more cheerful than her sister, and she is a good girl, a very good girl,
whom I love very much."
In a few moments a tall, slender, dark girl appeared, her hair hanging
down, and her youthful figure showing unmistakably beneath an old dress
of her mother's.
The latter at once told her how matters stood.
"This is Francesca's Frenchman, you know, the one whom she knew last
year. He is quite alone, and has come to look for her, poor fellow; so
I told him that you would go with him to keep him company."
The girl looked at me with her handsome dark eyes, and said, smiling:
"I have no objection, if he wishes it"
I could not possibly refuse, and merely said:
"Of course, I shall be very glad of your company."
Her mother pushed her out. "Go and get dressed directly; put on your
blue dress and your hat with the flowers, and make haste."
As soon as she had left the room the old woman explained herself: "I have
two others, but they are much younger. It costs a lot of money to bring
up four children. Luckily the eldest is off my hands at present."
Then she told all about herself, about her husband, who had been an
employee on the railway, but who was dead, and she expatiated on the good
qualities of Carlotta, her second girl, who soon returned, dressed, as
her sister had been, in a striking, peculiar manner.
Her mother examined her from head to foot, and, after finding everything
right, she said:
"Now, my children, you can go." Then turning to the girl, she said: "Be
sure you are back by ten o'clock to-night; you know the door is locked
then." The answer was: