Admiral de la Vallee, who seemed to be half asleep in his armchair, said in a voice which sounded like an old woman’s:
“I had a very singular little love adventure once; would you like to hear it?”
He spoke from the depths of his great chair, with that everlasting dry, wrinkled smile on his lips, that smile à la Voltaire, which made people take him for a terrible skeptic.
I was thirty years of age and first lieutenant in the navy, when I was intrusted with an astronomical expedition to Central India. The English Government provided me with all the necessary means for carrying out my enterprise, and I was soon busied with a few followers in that strange, surprising, prodigious country.
It would take me ten volumes to relate that journey. I went through wonderfully magnificent regions, and was received by strangely handsome princes, who entertained me with incredible magnificence. For two months it seemed to me as if I were walking in a poem, and that I was going about in a fairy kingdom, on the back of imaginary elephants. In the midst of wild forests I discovered extraordinary ruins, delicate and chiseled like jewels, fine as lace and enormous as mountains, those fabulous, divine monuments which are so graceful that one falls in love with their form like one falls in love with a woman, and that one feels a physical and sensual pleasure in looking at them. As Victor Hugo says, “Whilst wide-awake, I was walking in a dream.”
Towards the end of my journey I reached Ganhard, which was formerly one of the most prosperous towns in Central India, but is now much decayed and governed by a wealthy, arbitrary, violent, generous, and cruel prince. His name is Rajah Maddan, a true Oriental potentate, delicate and barbarous, affable and sanguinary, combining feminine grace with pitiless ferocity.
The city lies at the bottom of a valley, on the banks of a little lake which is surrounded by pagodas, which bathe their walls in the water.
At a distance the city looks like a white spot which grows larger as one approaches it, and by degrees one discovers the domes and spires, all the slender and graceful summits of Indian monuments.
At about an hour’s distance from the gates, I met a superbly caparisoned elephant, surrounded by a guard of honor which the sovereign had sent me, and I was conducted to the palace with great ceremony.
I should have liked to have taken the time to put on my gala uniform, but royal impatience would not admit of it. He was anxious to make my acquaintance, to know what he might expect from me, and then he would see.
I was introduced into a great hall surrounded by galleries, in the midst of bronze-colored soldiers in splendid uniforms, while all about were standing men dressed in striking robes studded with precious stones.
I saw a shining mass, a kind of sitting sun reposing on a bench like our garden benches, without a back; it was the rajah who was waiting for me, motionless, in a robe of the purest canary color. He had some ten or fifteen million francs worth of diamonds on him, and by itself, on his forehead glistened the famous star of Delhi, which has always belonged to the illustrious dynasty of the Pariharas of Mundore, from whom my host was descended.
He was a man of about five-and-twenty, who seemed to have some negro blood in his veins, although he belonged to the purest Hindoo race. He had large, almost motionless, rather vague eyes, fat lips, a curly beard, low forehead, and dazzling sharp white teeth, which he frequently showed with a mechanical smile. He got up and gave me his hand in the English fashion, and then made me sit down beside him on a bench which was so high that my feet hardly touched the ground, and I was very uncomfortable on it.
He immediately proposed a tiger hunt for the next day; war and hunting were his chief occupations, and he could hardly understand how one could care for anything else. He was evidently fully persuaded that I had only come all that distance to amuse him a little, and to be the companion of his pleasures.
As I stood greatly in need of his assistance, I tried to flatter his tastes, and he was so pleased with me that he immediately wished to show me how his trained boxers fought, and he led the way into a kind of arena situated within the palace.
At his command two naked men appeared, their hands covered with steel claws. They immediately began to attack each other, trying to strike one another with this sharp weapon, which left long cuts, from which the blood flowed freely down their dark skin.
It lasted for a long time, till their bodies were a mass of wounds, and the combatants were tearing each other’s flesh with this sort of rake made of pointed blades. One of them had his jaw smashed, while the ear of the other was split into three pieces.
The prince looked on with ferocious pleasure, uttered grunts of delight, and imitated all their movements with careless gestures, crying out constantly:
“Strike, strike hard!”
One fell down unconscious, and had to be carried out of the arena, covered with blood, while the rajah uttered a sigh of regret because it was over so soon.
He turned to me to know my opinion; I was disgusted, but I congratulated him loudly. He then gave orders that I was to be conducted to Couch–Mahal (the palace of pleasure), where I was to be lodged.
This bijou palace was situated at the extremity of the royal park, and one of its walls was built into the sacred lake of Vihara. It was square, with three rows of galleries with colonnades of most beautiful workmanship. At each angle there were light, lofty or low towers, standing either singly or in pairs: no two were alike, and they looked like flowers growing out of that graceful plant of Oriental architecture. All were surmounted by fantastic roofs, like coquettish ladies’ caps.
In the middle of the edifice a large dome raised its round cupola like a large white woman’s breast, beside a beautiful clock-tower.
The whole building was covered with sculpture from top to bottom, with those exquisite arabesques which delight the eye, of motionless processions of delicate figures whose attitudes and gestures in stone told the story of Indian manners and customs.
The rooms were lighted by windows with dentelated arches, looking on to the gardens. On the marble floor were designs of graceful bouquets in onyx, lapis-lazuli, and agate.
I had scarcely had time to finish my toilet when Haribada, a court dignitary who was specially charged to communicate between the prince and me, announced his sovereign’s visit.
The saffron-colored rajah appeared, again shook hands with me, and began to tell me a thousand different things, constantly asking me for my opinion, which I had great difficulty in giving him. Then he wished to show me the ruins of the former palace at the other extremity of the gardens.
It was a real forest of stones inhabited by a large tribe of apes. On our approach the males began to run along the walls, making the most hideous faces at us, while the females ran away, showing their bare rumps, and carrying off their young in their arms. The rajah shouted with laughter and pinched my arm to draw my attention, and to testify his own delight, and sat down in the midst of the ruins, while around us, squatting on the top of the walls, perching on every eminence, a number of animals with white whiskers put out their tongues and shook their fists at us.
When he had seen enough of this, the yellow rajah rose and began to walk sedately on, keeping me always at his side, happy at having shown me such things on the very day of my arrival, and reminding me that a grand tiger-hunt was to take place the next day, in my honor.
I was present at it, at a second, a third, at ten, twenty in succession. We hunted all the animals which the country produces in turn; the panther, the bear, elephant, antelope, the hippopotamus and the crocodile — what do I know of, half the beasts in creation I should say. I was disgusted at seeing so much blood flow, and tired of this monotonous pleasure.
At length the prince’s ardor abated and, at my urgent request, he left me a little leisure for work, and contented himself by loading me with costly presents. He sent me jewels, magnificent stuffs, and well-broken animals of all sorts, which Haribada presented to me with apparently as grave respect as if I had been the sun himself although he heartily despised me at the bottom of his heart.
Every day a procession of servants brought me in covered dishes, a portion of each course that was served at the royal table; every day he seemed to take an extreme pleasure in getting up some new entertainment for me — dances by the Bayaderes, jugglers, reviews of the troops, and I was obliged to pretend to be most delighted with it, so as not to hurt his feelings when he wished to show me his wonderful country in all its charm and all its splendor.
As soon as I was left alone for a few moments I either worked or went to see the monkeys, whose company pleased me a great deal better than that of their royal master.
One evening, however, on coming back from a walk, I found Haribada outside the gate of my palace. He told me in mysterious tones that a gift from the king was waiting for me in my room, and he said that his master begged me to excuse him for not having sooner thought of offering me that of which I had been deprived for such a long time.
After these obscure remarks the ambassador bowed and withdrew.
When I went in I saw six little girls standing against the wall motionless, side-by-side, like smelts on a skewer. The eldest was perhaps ten and the youngest eight years old. For the first moment I could not understand why this girls’ school had taken up its abode in my rooms; then, however, I divined the prince’s delicate attention: he had made me a present of a harem, and had chosen it very young from an excess of generosity. There, the more unripe the fruit is, in the higher estimation it is held.
For some time I remained confused and embarrassed, ashamed in the presence of these children, who looked at me with great grave eyes which seemed already to divine what I should want of them.
I did not know what to say to them; I felt inclined to send them back; but one cannot return the presents of a prince; it would have been a mortal insult. I was obliged, therefore, to keep them, and to install this troop of children in my rooms.
They stood motionless, looking at me, waiting for my orders, trying to read my thoughts in my eyes. Confound such a present! How dreadfully it was in my way. At last, thinking that I must be looking rather ridiculous, I asked the eldest her name.
“Châli,” she replied.
This little creature, with her beautiful skin, which was slightly yellow, like old ivory, was a marvel, a perfect statue, with her face and its long and severe lines.
I then asked, in order to see what she would reply, and also, perhaps, to embarrass her:
“What have you come here for?”
She replied, in her soft, harmonious voice:
“I have come to be altogether at my lord’s disposal, and to do whatever he wishes.”
She was evidently quite resigned.
I put the same question to the youngest, who answered immediately in her shrill voice:
“I am here to do whatever you ask me, my master.”
This one was like a little mouse, and was very taking, just as they all were, so I took her in my arms and kissed her. The others made a movement to go away, thinking, no doubt, that I had made my choice; but I ordered them to stay, and sitting down in the Indian fashion, I made them all sit round me, and began to tell them fairy-tales, for I spoke their language tolerably well.
They listened very attentively, and trembled, wringing their hands in agony. Poor little things, they were not thinking any longer of the reason why they were sent to me.
When I had finished my story, I called Latchmân, my confidential servant, and made him bring sweetmeats and cakes, of which they ate enough to make themselves ill; then, as I began to find the adventure rather funny, I organized games to amuse my wives.
One of these diversions had an enormous success. I made a bridge of my legs, and the six children ran underneath, the smallest beginning and the tallest always knocking against them a little, because she did not stoop enough. It made them shout with laughter, and these young voices sounding beneath the low vaults of my sumptuous palace, seemed to wake it up and to people it with childlike gaiety, filling it with life.
Next I took great interest in seeing to the sleeping apartments of my innocent concubines, and in the end I saw them safely locked up under the surveillance of four female servants, whom the prince had sent me at the same time in order to take care of my sultanas.
For a week I took the greatest pleasure in acting the papa towards these living dolls. We had capital games of hide-and-seek, puss-inthe-corner, &c., which gave them the greatest pleasure, for every day I taught them a new game, to their intense delight.
My house now seemed to be one large class, and my little friends, dressed in beautiful silk stuffs, and in materials embroidered with gold and silver, ran up and down the long galleries and the quiet rooms like little human animals.
At last, one evening, without my knowing exactly how it happened, the oldest of them, the one called Châli, and who looked so like an ivory statue, became my wife.
She was an adorable little creature, timid and gentle, who soon got to love me ardently, with some degree of shame, with hesitation as if afraid of European justice, with reserve and scruples, and yet with passionate tenderness. I cherished her as if I had been her father.
I beg your pardon, ladies; I am going rather too far.
The others continued to play in the palace, like a lot of happy kittens, and Châli never left me except when I went to the prince.
We passed delicious hours together in the ruins of the old castle, among the monkeys, who had become our friends.
She used to lie on my knees, and remain there, turning all sorts of things over in her little sphinx’s head, or perhaps not thinking of anything, retaining that beautiful, charming, hereditary pose of that noble and dreamy people, the hieratic pose of the sacred statues.
In a large brass dish I had brought provisions, cakes, fruits. The apes came nearer and nearer, followed by their young ones, who were more timid; at last they sat down round us in a circle, without daring to come any nearer, waiting for me to distribute my delicacies. Then, almost invariably, a male more daring than the rest would come to me with outstretched hand, like a beggar, and I would give him something, which he would take to his wife. All the others immediately began to utter furious cries, cries of rage and jealousy; and I could not make the terrible racket cease except by throwing each one his share.
As I was very comfortable in the ruins I had my instruments brought there, so that I might be able to work. As soon, however, as they saw the copper fittings on my scientific instruments, the monkeys, no doubt taking them for some deadly engines, fled on all sides, uttering the most piercing cries.
I often also spent my evenings with Châli on one of the external galleries that looked on to the lake of Vihara. Without speaking we looked at the bright moon gliding over the sky and throwing a mantle of trembling silver over the water, and down there, on the further shore, the row of small pagodas like elegant mushrooms with their stalks in the water. Taking the thoughtful head of my little mistress between my hands, I printed a long, soft kiss on her polished brow, on her great eyes, which were full of the secret of that ancient and fabulous land, and on her calm lips which opened to my caress. I felt a confused, powerful, above all, a poetical, sensation, the sensation that I possessed a whole race in this little girl, that mysterious race from which all the others seem to have taken their origin.
The prince, however, continued to load me with presents. One day he sent me a very unexpected object, which excited a passionate admiration in Châli. It was merely one of those cardboard boxes covered with shells stuck on outside, and they can be bought at any European seaside resort for a penny or two. But there it was a jewel beyond price, and no doubt was the first that had found its way into the kingdom. I put it on a table and left it there, wondering at the value which was set upon this trumpery article out of a bazaar.
But Châli never got tired of looking at it, of admiring it ecstatically. From time to time she would say to me, “May I touch it?” And when I had given her permission she raised the lid, closed it again with the greatest precaution, touched the shells very gently, and the contact seemed to give her real physical pleasure.
However, I had finished my work, and it was time for me to return. I was a long time in making up my mind, kept back by my tenderness for my little friend, but at last I was obliged to fix the day of my departure.
The prince got up fresh hunting excursions and fresh wrestling matches, and after a fortnight of these pleasures I declared that I could stay no longer, and he gave me my liberty.
My farewell from Châli was heartrending. She wept, lying beside me, with her head on my breast, shaken with sobs. I did not know how to console her; my kisses were no good.
All at once an idea struck me, and getting up I went and got the shell-box, and putting it into her hands, I said, “That is for you; it is yours.”
Then I saw her smile at first. Her whole face was lighted up with internal joy, with that profound joy when impossible dreams are suddenly realized, and she embraced me ardently.
All the same, she wept bitterly when I bade her a last farewell.
I gave paternal kisses and cakes to all the rest of my wives, and then I started.
Two years had passed when my duties again called me to Bombay, and, because I knew the country and the language well, I was left there to undertake another mission.
I finished what I had to do as quickly as possible, and as I had a considerable amount of spare time on my hands I determined to go and see my friend the King of Ganhard and my dear little Châli once more, though I expected to find her much changed.
The rajah received me with every demonstration of pleasure, and hardly left me for a moment during the first day of my visit. At night, however, when I was alone, I sent for Haribada, and after several misleading questions I said to him:
“Do you know what has become of little Châli, whom the rajah gave me?”
He immediately assumed a sad and troubled look, and said, in evident embarrassment:
“We had better not speak of her.”
“Why? She was a dear little woman.”
“She turned out badly, Sir.”
“What — Châli? What has become of her? Where is she?”
“I mean to say that she came to a bad end.”
“A bad end! Is she dead?”
“Yes. She committed a very dreadful action.”
I was very much distressed. I felt my heart beat, and my breast was oppressed with grief, and insisted on knowing what she had done and what had happened to her.
The man became more and more embarrassed, and murmured, “You had better not ask about it.”
“But I want to know.”
“She stole — ”
“Who — Châli? What did she steal?”
“Something that belonged to you.”
“To me? What do you mean?”
“The day you left she stole that little box which the prince had given you; it was found in her hands.”
“What box are you talking about?”
“The box covered with shells.”
“But I gave it to her.”
The Indian looked at me with stupefaction, then replied: “Well, she declared with the most sacred oaths that you had given it to her, but nobody could believe that you could have given a king’s present to a slave, and so the rajah had her punished.”
“How was she punished? What was done to her?”
“She was tied up in a sack, and thrown into the lake from this window, from the window of the room in which we are, where she had committed the theft.”
I felt the most terrible grief that I ever experienced, and I made a sign to Haribada to go away, so that he might not see my tears; and I spent the night on the gallery that looked on to the lake, on the gallery where I had so often held the poor child on my knees.
I pictured to myself her pretty little body lying decomposed in a sack in the dark waters beneath me, which we had so often looked at together formerly.
The next day I left again, in spite of the rajah’s entreaties and evident vexation; and I now still feel as if I had never loved any woman but Châli.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58