Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 15


WHEN these problems of engineering had been solved, John was able to turn his attention once more to his telepathic researches. As he still looked too young to be wandering about the Continent by himself, he insisted on taking me with him to Paris. When we were approaching our destination, he showed signs of eagerness. Well might he, for he expected to find a being who could meet him as an equal and afford him a far more satisfying companionship than any he had yet known. But when we had lodged ourselves in a little hotel in the rue Bertholet (off the avenue de Claude Bernard) he became almost disheartened. When I questioned him he laughed awkwardly, and said. “I’m having a new sensation. I’m feeling shy! She doesn’t seem particularly keen on my coining. She won’t help me to find her. I know she’s somewhere in the Quartier Latin. She passes the end of this street quite often. I know she knows some one is looking for her, and yet she won’t help. Also, she’s evidently very old and wise. She remembers the Franco–Prussian War. I’ve been trying to see what she sees when she looks in a mirror, so as to get her face; but I can’t catch her at the right time.

At that moment his head jerked, and he said without any pause, “While I was talking to you, I, the real I, was in touch with her. She’s in a certain café. She’ll be there for some time. Let’s find her.”

He had an obscure feeling that the café was near the Odéon, so thither we hastened. After some hesitation he selected a certain establishment, and we entered. As soon as he had passed through the door, he whispered excitedly, “This is it all right. This is the room she is seeing at the moment.” He stood for a second or two, a queer little foreigner, jostled by waiters and a stream of guests. Then he made his way to an empty table at the far side of the room.

“There she is,” said John, with surprise in his voice, almost with awe. Following his gaze I saw at a near table two women. One had her back to us, but I judged that she was under thirty, for her figure was slim and the curve of her cheek almost juvenile. The other was extravagantly old. Her face was a relief map; all ridges and valleys. I studied her with disappointment, for she had a dull and peevish face, and she was looking at John with offensive curiosity.

But now the other woman turned her head and looked about the room. There was no mistaking those large eyes. They were John’s, though heavy-lidded. For a moment they rested on me, then on John. The drooping lids were lifted to reveal two black and lofty caverns more abysmal even than John’s. The whole face lit up with intelligence and amusement. She rose, and advanced toward John, who also rose. They faced one another in silence. Then the woman said, “Alors c’est toi qui me cherches toujours!”

She was not what I had expected. In spite of the great eyes, she might almost have passed for a normal woman, an eccentric specimen of the normal species. Her head, though large, did not look noticeably out of proportion to her body, for she was tall, and the black hair which scarcely showed under her close-fitting hat added little to its size. Her ample mouth, I guessed, had been skilfully reduced by painting.

But though passably “human,” according to the standards of Homo sapiens, she was strange. Were I an imaginative writer, and not merely a journalist, I might be able to suggest symbolically something of the almost “creepy” effect she had on me, something of its remote and sleepy power. As it is I can only record certain obvious features, and in general that curious combination of the infantile, or even the foetal, with the mature. The protruding brow, the short broad nose, the great distance between the great eyes, the surprising breadth of the whole face, the marked furrow from nose to lips — all these characters were definitely foetal; and yet the precisely chiselled lips themselves and the delicate moulding of the eyelids produced an expression of subtle experience suggestive of an ageless divinity. To me at least, prepared of course by familiarity with John’s own strangeness, this strange face seemed to combine idiosyncrasy and universality. Here, in spite of a vaguely repulsive uncouthness, was a living symbol of womanhood. Yet here also was a being utterly different from any other, something unique and individual. When I looked from her to the most attractive girl in the room I was shocked to find that it was the normal beauty that was repulsive. With something like vertigo I looked once more at the adorable grotesque.

While I was watching her, she and John stood regarding one another in complete silence. Presently the New Woman, as I had already cynically named her for my private amusement, asked us to move to her table, which we accordingly did. Her real name was given as Jacqueline Castagnet. The old lady, introduced as Mme. Lemaître, regarded us with hostility, but had to put up with us. She was thoroughly commonplace; yet I was struck with certain points of likeness with Jacqueline, certain indescribable traits of expression and of voice. I guessed that the two women were mother and daughter. Later it turned out that I was right; and yet also quite wrong.

There followed a few aimless remarks, and then Jacqueline began speaking in a language quite unknown to me. For a second John looked surprised, then laughed, and answered, apparently in the same tongue. For half an hour or so they continued speaking, while I laboured to maintain conversation with Mme. Lemaître in very bad French.

Presently the old lady reminded Jacqueline that they were both due elsewhere. When the two women had left us, John and I remained at the table for a while. He was silent and absorbed. I asked what language they had been talking. “English,” he said. “She wanted to tell me a lot about herself, and didn’t want the old one to know about it, so she started in on English-back-to-front. I’ve never tried that before, but it’s quite easy, for us.” There was a faint stress on the “us.” John evidently knew that I felt “left out,” for he continued: “I had better tell you the gist of what she said. The old lady is her daughter, but doesn’t know it. Jacqueline was married to a man called Cazé eighty-three years ago, but she cleared out when the child was four. A few days ago she came across this old thing, and recognized her as her baby daughter, and made friends with her. Mme. Lemaître showed her a photograph ‘of my mother who died when I was quite little — strangely like you, my dear. Perhaps you are some sort of great niece of mine.’ Jacqueline herself was born in 1765.”

John’s account of the amazing life story of Jacqueline I can only summarize. It deserves to be recorded in a fat volume, but my concern is with John.

Her parents were peasants of that bleak country called “Lousy Champagne,” between Châlons-sur-Marne and the Forest of Argonne. They were thrifty even to miserliness. Jacqueline, with her supernormal intelligence and sensibility and her ravenous capacity for life, was brought up in very cramping circumstances. This was probably a cause of the passion for pleasure and power which played so great a part in the earlier phases of her career. Like John, she took an unconscionable time a-growing up. This was a grievance to her parents, who were impatient for her to help in the house and on the land, and later were indignant that at an age when other girls were ready for marriage she was still a breastless child. The life which she was compelled to lead was physically healthy, but devastating to her spirit. She soon realized that she had capacities for all manner of subtle experience beyond the reach of her fellow mortals, and that the sane course was to devote herself to the exercise of these capacities; but her monotonous and dour existence made it impossible for her to detach herself from the less developed cravings of her nature, the increasing hunger for luxury and power. The fact that she inhabited a world of half-wits was borne in on her most obviously in the perception that the neighbouring peasants’ daughters, though they eclipsed her in normal sexual appeal, were too stupid to make full use of this asset as a means to dominance.

Before adolescence had properly begun, when she was only nineteen, she had already determined to beat them all at their own game, and indeed to become a queen among women. In the neighbouring town of Ste. Menehould she sometimes saw fine ladies passing through in their coaches on their way to Paris, or breaking their journey at the local inn. She observed them with scientific care, and laid the foundations of her future technique.

When she was on the threshold of womanhood, her parents betrothed her to a neighbouring farmer. She ran away. Making full use of her only two weapons, sex and intelligence, she struggled through from the humblest and most brutish sort of prostitution to become the mistress of a wealthy Parisian merchant. For some years she lived upon him, latterly giving him nothing in return but the terrible charm of her society once a week at dinner.

When she had reached the age of thirty-five she fell in love, for the first time in her life, with a young artist, one of those who were preparing the way for the vital and triumphant movement of Parisian painting. This novel experience brought to a climax the great conflict which tormented her. She, who had followed the most ancient profession without repugnance, was now horrified at herself. For the young man had wakened in her those dormant capacities which had perforce been thwarted by her career. She used her technique to capture him, and easily succeeded. They lived together. For a few months both were happy.

Gradually, however, she came to realize that, after all, she was mated to something which, from her point of view, was little better than an ape. She had known, of course, that her peasant clients, her Parisian clients, and her amiable wealthy patron, were “subhuman”; the artist, she had persuaded herself, was an exception. Yet she still clung to her man. To break with the being to whom she had given her soul, even though in error, would, she felt, have killed her. Moreover, she still genuinely, though irrationally, loved him. He was her almost-human animal. She cared for him as a huntswoman and a spinster might care for her horse. He was not human, and could never be the mate of her spirit; but he was a noble animal and she was proud of his animal attainments, namely of his triumphs in the sphere of “subhuman” art. She entered into his work with enthusiasm. She was not merely his source of inspiration; increasingly she took command of his artistic faculty. The more she possessed him, the more clearly the unhappy man realized that his native genius was being overborne and suffocated by the flood of her fertile imagination. His was a complex tragedy. He seems to have recognized that the pictures which he produced under her influence were more daring and aesthetically more triumphant than anything he could produce without her; but he realized also that he was losing his reputation, that even the most sensitive of his follow-artists could not appreciate them. He made a stand for independence, and began to regain his self-respect and reputation. On her this turn of affairs had the effect of rousing all her suppressed disgust. Each was striving to be rid of the other, yet each craved the other. There was a quarrel, in which she played the part of the divinity who had come down to raise him to her own level, and was rejected. Next day he shot himself.

This tragedy evidently had a profound effect on her still juvenile mind. The finality of the deed bred in her a new tenderness and respect for the subhuman beings who surrounded her. Somehow this death lessened the distance between her and them. Though her passion for self-expression soon returned, and though she sometimes indulged it ruthlessly, it was tempered by the recollection that she had killed the one being in the world who for a whole month had seemed to her superior to herself.

For a few years after the death of the artist, Jacqueline lived in great poverty on savings which she had accumulated in her association with the merchant. She tried to make a name for herself as a writer, under a masculine pseudonym; but the stuff which she produced was too remote to be appreciated, and she could not bring herself to write in a different vein. When she was in her forties, and still in the first flush of maturity, her obsessive craving for luxury and power returned with such insistence that, in a panic, she became a nun. She did not believe any of the explicit doctrines of the Church; but she made up her mind to pay lip service to all its superstitions for the sake of its flicker of genuine and corporate religious experience, which, she felt, she needed for the strengthening of her better nature. Her presence in the nunnery, however, very soon caused such an upheaval that the institution was finally disbanded, and Jacqueline, with bitter laughter in her heart, returned to her original calling.

But to her own surprise prostitution now afforded her something more than the means to wealth and power. Her experience in the nunnery had not been wholly barren. She had learned a good deal about the spiritual cravings of the subhuman kind; and this knowledge she now put to good use. Her motive in returning to prostitution had been purely self-regarding, but she soon discovered that the more human of her clients were suffering from an unconscious need for something more than carnal satisfaction. And she found exaltation in ministering to this essentially spiritual need. Carnal satisfaction she gave ungrudgingly. Her own initial distaste at intercourse with beings of a lowly order gave way to delight in her new office. Many a man whose real need was not merely copulation but intimacy with a sensitive yet fearless woman, many who needed moreover help in the seemingly hopeless task of “coming to terms with the universe,” found in Jacqueline a well of strength. As her reputation grew, ever greater demands were made on her. Hoping to save herself from a breakdown, she chose disciples, young women who were ready to live her life and give themselves as she gave herself. Some of them were partially successful, but none could do as she had done. The strain increased until at last she fell seriously ill.

When she recovered, her old self-seeking passion was once more uppermost. Using all her prowess she fought her way up the social ladder of Europe, till, at fifty-seven and on the threshold of full maturity, she married a Russian prince. She did so knowing that he was a worthless creature and a half-wit, even by normal standards. So skilfully did she play her cards during the next fifteen years that she had a good prospect of setting him on the throne. Increasing disgust and horror, however, flung her into another mental disorder. From this she emerged once more her true self. She cut adrift, disguised herself, and fled back to Paris to carry on her old profession. Occasionally she met one or other of her former clients, now well advanced in years. But as she herself had retained her youthful appearance, and indeed seemed to have the full flower of womanhood still ahead of her, she easily persuaded them that she was the former Jacqueline’s young niece.

All this while she had never had a child, never conceived. In her early years she had taken precaution to avoid such a disaster; but in maturity, though she had felt no craving for motherhood, she had been less reluctant to risk it, and less cautious. As the decades passed and her remaining caution dwindled out, she came to suspect that she was sterile, and in the end she ceased to take any precautions at all. On her return from Russia an obscure sense that in missing motherhood she had missed a valuable experience developed into a definite hunger to have a baby of her own.

Not a few of her clients had tried to persuade her to accept marriage. Hitherto she had laughed at these suitors, but when she had passed her eightieth year, she began to be seriously attracted by the prospect of a spell of quiet married life. Among her clients was a young Parisian lawyer, Jean Cazé. Whether he was in fact the father of her child she did not know; but when, to her amazement, she found that she had conceived, she singled him out as a suitable husband. He, it so happened, had never thought of marrying her; but when she had slipped the idea into his mind, he pressed her ardently, overcame her feigned reluctance and carried her off in pride. After eleven months of pregnancy she bore her daughter, and very nearly died in the ordeal. Four years of maternal duties and of companionship with the faithful Cazé were enough for her. Jean, she knew, would treasure the infant; and indeed he did, to the extent of spoiling her for life. Jacqueline fled not only from Paris but from France, and started all over again in Dresden.

Throughout the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century Jacqueline appears to have had alternating spells of exalted prostitution and marriage. She counted among her husbands, she said, a British ambassador, a famous writer, and a West African negro who was a private in the French colonial army. Never again did she conceive. Probably John was right in surmising that she had the power of preventing conception by an act of volition, though she had no idea how she exercised this power.

Since the close of the nineteenth century Jacqueline had not indulged in marriage. She had preferred to carry on her profession, because of her “great affection for the dear children,” by which she meant her clients. Hers must have been a strange life. Of course she gave herself for money, like any member of her profession, or of any other profession. Nevertheless, her heart was in her work, and she chose her clients, not according to their power to pay, but according to their needs and their capacity to benefit by her ministrations. She seems to have combined in her person the functions of harlot, psycho-analyst and priest.

During the war of 1914–18 she was drawn into overstraining herself once more. So many tragic cases came her way. And after the war, being wholly without national prejudices, she moved to Germany, where the need was greater. It was in Germany, in 1925, that she had once more collapsed, and was forced to spend a year in a “mental home.” When we met her she was again established in Paris, and again at work.

On the day after our meeting in the café John had left me to amuse myself as best I could while he visited Jacqueline. He stayed away four days, and when he returned he was haggard and obviously in great distress. Not till long afterwards could he bring himself to tell the cause of his misery, and then he said only, “She’s glorious, and hurt, and I can’t help her, and she won’t help me. She was terribly kind and sweet to me. Said she had never met any one like me, wished we’d met a hundred years ago. She says my work is going to be great. But really she thinks it’s just schoolboy adventure, no more.”


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