“When I saw her for the first time,” Louis d’Arandel said, with the look of a man who was dreaming and trying to recollect something, “I thought of some slow and yet passionate music that I once heard, though I do not remember who was the composer, where there was a fair-haired woman, whose hair was so silky, so golden, and so vibrating, that her lover had it cut off after her death, and had the strings of the magic bow of a violin made out of it, which afterwards emitted such superhuman complaints and love melodies that they made its hearers love until death.
“In her eyes there lay the mystery of deep waters, and one was lost in them, drowned in them like in fathomless depths, and at the corners of her mouth there lurked that despotic and merciless smile of those women who do not fear that they may be conquered, who rule over men like cruel queens, whose hearts remain as virgin as those of the strictest Carmelite nuns, amidst a flood of lewdness.
“I have seen her angelic head, the bands of her hair, that looked like plates of gold, her tall, graceful figure, her white, slender, childish hands, in stained glass windows in churches. She suggested pictures of the Annunciation, where the Archangel Gabriel descends with ultra-marine colored wings, and Mary is sitting at her spinning-wheel and spinning, while uttering pious prayers, and looks like the tall sister of the white lilies that are growing beside her and the roses.
“When she went through the acacia alley, she appeared on some First Night in the stage box at one of the theaters, nearly always alone, and apparently feeling life a great burden, and angry because she could not change the eternal, dull round of human enjoyment, nobody would have believed that she went in for a fast life, and that in the annals of gallantry she was catalogued under the strange name of Lilie Lala, and that no man could rub against her without being irretrievably caught, and spending his last half-penny on her.
“But with all that, Lilie had the voice of a schoolgirl, of some little innocent creature who still uses a skipping-rope and wears short dresses, and had that clear, innocent laugh which reminds people of wedding bells. Sometimes, for fun, I would kneel down before her, like before the statue of a saint, and clasping my hands as if in prayer, I used to say: ‘Sancta Lilie, ora pro nobis!’
“One evening, at Biarritz, when the sky had the dull glare of intense heat and the sea was of a sinister, inky black, and was swelling and rolling enormous phosphorescent waves onto the beach at Port–Vieux, Lilie, who was listless and strange, and was making holes in the sand with the heels of her boots, suddenly exclaimed in one of those longings for confidence which women sometimes feel, and for which they are sorry as soon as their story is done:
“‘Ah! My dear fellow, I do not deserve to be canonized, and my life is rather a subject for a drama than a chapter from the Gospels or the Golden Legend. As long as I can remember anything, I can remember seeing myself wrapped in lace, being carried by a woman, and continually being made a fuss with, like children are who have been waited for for a long time, and who are spoiled more than others.
“‘Those kisses were so nice, that I still seem to feel their sweetness, and I preserve the remembrance of them in a little place in my heart, like one preserves some lucky talisman in a reliquary. I still seem to remember an indistinct landscape lost in the mist, outlines of trees which frightened me as they creaked and groaned in the wind, and ponds on which swans were sailing. And when I look in the glass for a long time, merely for the sake of seeing myself, it seems to me as if I recognized the woman who formerly used to kiss me most frequently, and speak to me in a more loving voice than anyone else did. But what happened afterwards?
“‘Was I carried off, or sold to some strolling circus owner by a dishonest servant? I do not know; I have never been able to find out; but I remember that my whole childhood was spent in a circus which traveled from fair to fair, and from place to place, with files of vans, processions of animals, and noisy music.
“‘I was as tiny as an insect, and they taught me difficult tricks, to dance on the tight-rope and to perform on the slack-rope. . . . I was beaten as if I had been a bit of plaster, and I more frequently had a piece of dry bread to gnaw, than a slice of meat. But I remember that one day I slipped under one of the vans, and stole a basin of soup as my share, which one of the clowns was carefully making for his three learned dogs.
“‘I had neither friends nor relations; I was employed on the dirtiest jobs, like the lowest stable-help, and I was tattooed with bruises and scars. Of the whole company, however, the one who beat me the most, who was the least sparing of his thumps, and who continually made me suffer, as if it gave him pleasure, was the manager and proprietor, a kind of old, vicious brute, whom everybody feared like the plague, a miser who was continually complaining of the receipts, who hid away the crown pieces in his mattress, invested his money in the funds, and cut down the salary of everybody, as far as he could.
“‘His name was Rapha Ginestous. Any other child, but myself, would have succumbed to such constant martyrdom, but I grew up, and the more I grew, the prettier and more desirable I became, so that when I was fifteen, men were already beginning to write love letters to me, and to throw bouquets to me in the arena. I felt also that all the men in the company were watching me, and were coveting me as their prey; that their lustful looks rested on my pink tights, and followed the graceful outlines of my body when I was posing on the rope that stretched from one end of the circus to the other, or jumped through the paper hoops at full gallop.
“‘They were no longer the same, and spoke to me in a totally different tone of voice. . . . They tried to come into my dressing-room when I was changing my dress, and Rapha Ginestous seemed to have lost his head, and his heart throbbed audibly when he came near me. Yes, he had the audacity to propose bargains to me which covered my cheeks and forehead with blushes, and which filled me with disgust, and as I felt a fierce hatred for him, and detested him with all my soul and all my strength, as I wished to make him suffer the tortures which he had inflicted upon me, a hundred fold, I used him as the target at which I was constantly aiming.
“‘Instinctively, I employed every cunning perfidy, every artful coquetry, every lie, every artifice which upsets the strongest and most skeptical, and places them at our mercy, like submissive animals. He loved me, he really loved me, that lascivious goat, who had never seen anything in a woman except a soft palliasse, and an instrument of convenience and of forgetfulness. He loved me like old men do love, with frenzy, with degrading transports, and with the prostration of his will and of his strength. . . . I held him like in a leash, and did whatever I liked with him.
“‘I was much more manageress than he was manager, and the poor wretch wasted away in vain hopes and in useless transports; he had not even touched the tips of my fingers, and was reduced to bestowing his caresses on my columbine shoes, my tights, and my wigs. And I care not that for it, you understand! Not the slightest familiarity, and he began to grow thin over it, fell ill, and almost became idiotic. And while he implored me, and promised to marry me, with his eyes full of tears, I shouted with laughter; I reminded him of how he had beaten, abused, and humiliated me, and had often made me wish for death. And as soon as he left me, he emptied bottles of gin and whisky, and got so abominably drunk that he rolled under the table, in order to drown his sorrow and forget his desire.
“‘He covered me with jewels, and tried everything he could to tempt me to become his wife, and in spite of my inexperience in life, he consulted me with regard to everything he undertook, and one evening, after I had stroked his face with my hand, I persuaded him without any difficulty, to make his will, by which he left me all his savings, and the circus and everything belonging to it.
“‘It was in the middle of winter, near Moscow; it snowed continually, and one almost burned oneself at the stoves in trying to keep warm. Rapha Ginestous had had supper brought into the largest van, which was his, after the performance, and for hours we ate and drank. I was very nice towards him, and filled his glass every moment; I even sat on his knee and kissed him. And all his love, and the fumes of the alcohol of the wine mounted to his head, and gradually made him so helplessly intoxicated, that he fell from his chair inert, and as if he had been struck by lightning, without opening his eyes or saying a word.
“‘The rest of the troupe were asleep, and the lights were out in all the little windows, and not a sound was to be heard, while the snow continued to fall in large flakes. So having put out the petroleum lamp, I opened the door, and taking the drunkard by the feet, as if he had been a bale of goods, I threw him out into that white shroud.
“‘The next morning the stiff and convulsed body of Rapha Ginestous was picked up, and as everybody knew his inveterate drinking habits, no one thought of instituting an inquiry, or of accusing me of a crime, and thus I was avenged, and had a yearly income of nearly fifteen thousand francs. What, after all, is the good of being honest, and of pardoning our enemies, as the Gospel bids us?’
“And now,” Louis d’Arandal said in conclusion, “suppose we go and have a cocktail or two at the Casino, for I do not think that I have ever talked so much in my life before.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11