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Title: Woman
Author: Marx, Magdeleine, 1889-1973
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Woman" ***

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                                WOMAN

                          By MAGDELEINE MARX


    INTRODUCTION BY
    HENRI BARBUSSE

    TRANSLATED BY ADELE SZOLD SELTZER

    NEW YORK
    THOMAS SELTZER
    1920

    Copyright, 1920, by
    THOMAS SELTZER, Inc.

    _First printing June, 1920_
    _Second printing July, 1920_

    PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

    _All rights reserved_



CONTENTS


BOOK I BEING BORN

BOOK II BEING

BOOK III BECOMING



INTRODUCTION


A splendid book in which a soul lives so profoundly human and so purely
feminine that any words of introduction seem leaden and intrusive. You
feel as though you were violating the essential delicacy and powerful
life of this soul to comment upon the remarkable revelation of it
between the very covers that contain the revelation.

Yet, as a modest friend of letters, I should like to express an opinion
here--the author did not ask me for it--and pay homage to the brilliant
originality of this work. I want to give myself the pleasure of saying
how important I think it is.

It expresses--and this is a fact of considerable literary and moral
import--what has never been exactly expressed before. It expresses
Woman.

The more woman has been spoken about, you might say, the less she has
been revealed. She has been hidden under a plethora of words. The
supreme vision rising up out of these pages is as luminous as a heavenly
revelation. From the author's tone, so simple and penetrating, you
perceive that women feel differently about the things that we men see
and proudly proclaim.

The thought and spirit of _Woman_ will be a surprise and a shock to the
old masculine traditions, in which women also acquiesce, probably
because of their old traditions of slavery. But we know that always and
everywhere the opposition such thought arouses is sublimely lacking in
truth.

Here is a woman who cries out with magnificent impressive sincerity
against the fallacy of the maternal instinct--the "call of the
blood"--against the exclusiveness of love; who knows and asserts that
death kills only the dead, and not those who are left behind; who
recreates in new forms the law and the creed of the relations between
man and woman, motherhood, and suffering. And this new expression of
woman--a new expression, therefore, of the whole of life--this striking
gospel, young and strong, which overcomes artificial, unnatural ideas,
resounds at the very time when woman is at last entering humanity and is
preparing to change her rôle of breeder of children and handmaid in
common.

The book is strictly, religiously objective. Everything is perceived
only through the eyes, the mind, the heart of the "heroine"--the word
usage thrusts upon us for this woman who has no name, who is just truly
herself. Through the commanding will of the author the creative richness
of the book springs altogether from the magnificent oneness of a human
being. No outside approach mars this unity. In no other book perhaps so
markedly as in this has the integrity of an individual been more
respected, and never has an imaginary character so consistently warded
off whatever is not of itself. You don't even seem to feel that this
"Woman" talks or tells a story. You simply know what she knows.

And because of this very fact, this intimate association which unites us
jealously with this one being of all others, the book is poignant and
moving. A world is born beneath our eyes. In some scenes, short or long
but always important and vital, a tragedy shudders, and the entire
succession of the events of life, ordinary and on a big scale, passes in
the book in clear outline, in essential poetry.

       *       *       *       *       *

To say this is to say that the author is a master, that her technique is
subtle, that the action concentrates all the dramas of the world in one
spiritual drama, and the book reveals a prodigious gift for presenting a
whole of vast impressions which creates unity.

_Woman_ does not belong to any class of writing; it is not tied down by
any formula; it does not lower itself by imitating. It is a powerful, a
rebel, a virgin work, and it ranks Magdeleine Marx among the loftiest
poets of our age.

_HENRI BARBUSSE._



BOOK I

_BEING BORN_



I


The sun was beginning to shine.

I had been walking and walking....

I had just left the brambly path which cuts a bed of sand through the
forest, laying bare its rusty bowels.

I felt full-fed by the subtle nourishment that space distils, crammed
with air, and my forehead seemed drawn taut. Was it the motes dancing in
the sunbeams? I don't know. I was spent. The fancy throbbed beneath my
temples, did its work, and I let it go.

You must have been sincere at least once in your life to know what an
hour is face to face with yourself, a whole hour, step by step, minute
by minute. And I never had been sincere. Now I escaped from my clogging
limbs, from the clay of myself. Until now I had done nothing but breathe
and sleep. All of a sudden I was alive. It was intoxicating....

Dizzy though I was I felt an exhausting need to keep on going.

I penetrated deep into the woods walking at random, my mind almost a
blank. When the leafy undergrowth enclosed me, I let myself slide to the
ground on to the dried-up grass, the fallen twigs, and the crackling
russet pine-needles.

All about in a dense circle, the rugged plant life. A moving splendor
in the play of the varying greens. Damp, aromatic smells. And a sense of
invisible swarming life everywhere....

The silence, so fresh and penetrating, was like a living thing, and I
turned round several times thinking I heard some one behind me panting.
No one. The uneven trunks of the great trees; lower down, behind their
serrated green, a slate-colored screen of mist; here, the
shadow-broidered ground; above, the patches of blue sky--and I.

I....

I was a little ashamed to link my Self to myself in this way, to give my
Self its value. The old attitude of humility, of attaching no importance
to Self--was that going to begin again? Now I felt more profoundly alone
than in the harmonious exaltation I had experienced while walking. In a
mixture of alarm and idleness I tried not to remain motionless, but to
plant my elbows on the ground and lie flat on the grass with my head
between my hands, so as to divert myself with living noise.... I could
not.

Then I stretched out on my back, my eyes fixed on the sky, my body
relaxed; and the full-blooded tide of my thoughts flowed over me.

They flowed on, of themselves, no longer halting, as they had on the
walk, on the edge of each discovery; I no longer kept saying to myself
as when I hammered out my pitiless steps: "I have lied, I have always
lied, I have lived only on the outskirts of my life...." The air was
still, the soul alone sounded, and the soul also was at peace. I went
down into the depths--to find the soul's sweet beginnings, I suppose.

There were no beginnings. Though my early memories came back obediently,
they were not illuminating. The catechism.... With outstretched hands
and rounded voice, the Abbé Daudret was telling of the wicked, those
whom the Almighty was waiting to punish in the hereafter. Crushed by the
word wicked, stifled by the heavy solemnity of the church, withdrawn
into my littleness, I comprehended, with dull, recurring pangs, that I
was among the damned, I, the model little girl. We went home again; I
was calm, unruffled, obedient, but if any one used the word sinful in my
hearing, if I came across it threatening in black and white, I felt as
if a brutal fist had struck my shoulder; I blushed, a swift remorse
flamed in my bowels; that word was meant for me, _I_ was the guilty one.

At last one day I found out why I was guilty. I had not known before.

I had been summoned to the small drawing-room; the shutters were closed;
my mother, a dim figure in the twilight, was saying good-bye to a lady
in deep mourning whose veil framed a face of alabaster. How beautiful
she was! The quivering shadows made a halo around her. I scarcely dared
to approach her because I remembered the whispers that buzzed about her
name and the envy that glittered in the eyes of the women. How beautiful
she was!... Her heavy lashes weighed down her lids.... I wanted to say
something to her, just one word. I could not, could not even repeat what
my mother, leaning towards me, told me to say.... As the lady was
leaving she turned in the doorway, fixed her great wide eyes on me and
said with an even sadder note in her velvety voice: "The child is going
to be beautiful."

I heard myself exclaim with joy. As soon as the door closed, I ran to
the glass, which seemed to be waiting for me. My whole being was aflame
as I raised myself on tiptoe to receive the first echo of her words from
the mirror.... But my mother was already coming back and saying
severely: "You know it isn't true...." I was still on tiptoe. "You are
ugly!" My spirits dropped and instantly were bottled up in me.
Everything was clear, I understood, I understood....

It was an epitome of my life. The seasons passed; I maintained silence,
always, hiding my good qualities, hiding my bad qualities, encountering
only remorse between the two extremes; for it is by remorse that they
are joined together.

Consequently my mind stored up no happening, no deeper or fainter
impression, only remorse. Remorse never left me.

But yes, it did leave me, just now, suddenly, at the bend of the road,
where the bank slopes gently down to the ditch, when I bowed my head to
the thought, "They think me gentle, simple, just like the others; they
say I am cleverer. It is only because I dissemble more than the
others."

At that I raised my eyes.

"What after all does my lying matter to them? Do they want the truth?
No. They spurn it, scourge it, hunt it down. They are not worth trying
to find out the truth for. Enough."

The sunshine seemed to tighten its clutch on the earth and whitewashed
the pathway.

"But it is not this matter of lying that one must bewail; the point is,
there is an essential _something else_. There is--I feel there is--the
true life, my life, and it is this true life that I have betrayed. My
true life is now pushing on, bravely, along the gray stony path.... I
don't know where it is going, nor what it is, since I have never seen it
in anything that I have done, but it must live. If I die for it, what
does it matter? It will live on. It was hidden in my body, it stayed
there ashamed of itself, then came at night to beset me with its sadness
and put me to sleep with the taste of dust and ashes on my lips; and in
the morning, as soon as my eyes opened, was it the light that flooded
over me, painted the walls of my room with flame, and instantly died
away?"

The blue density of the forest, the corrugated, soaring columns of the
trees, high and distinct in their parallel lives, the clear quivering
azure are all around me. Where is their obscure will?

I have come to these things, I have lain down in their midst, I have
watched them. Before these things one no longer lies. And behold, I
find myself.

I see myself as I am.

My heavy hair, flame-colored, which gives out little glints of light
above my forehead, my complexion with the mother-of-pearl coloring of
the full daylight, the violet reflections in my eyes deepened by the
scanty shade of the trees, the firm red line of my lips, and beneath my
light dress, the fleet suppleness encased in my limbs.

Is it possible? I am no longer ashamed to be like this, nor to _know_
what I am like. I have let fall, at last, like a bothersome mask, the
modest air that makes people say: "She's all the prettier because she
doesn't know she's pretty."

Do you think, pray, that there is a single woman in the world who, if
she is good looking, doesn't know it?

I know, I know with a vengeance, that I am beautiful; I know it better
than anything else about myself. There are not only looking-glasses,
there are all the men. Whether old man, beggar, or chance passerby, you
drink in, in one long intoxicating draught: "I am beautiful." And the
women, if you know the terror in their eyes, the appeal, the envy, and
their mute defense.... You seem unaware, smiling, distant, but you are
on the eager watch for the pain you inflict.

To please.... In the presence of other people to please is wicked
vanity, strutting, flaunting vanity; but here, on the bony ground, it is
simply a bit of me. It is a power which has been given me, I shall not
give it back; it is merely a harmony, a response to the beauty I feel, a
craving to convince, a very strong craving; my life is lovelier than I.

My life is here. But what makes up my life? Not entirely my rosy good
health, nor this firm equilibrium which exercises control in the centre
of my being. My health and poise are, chiefly, the things that remove me
from my life. My life is a need to use my muscles, it is vigorous
movement, it is the notion I have that I can crush the world between my
arms; yes, the longing to run, to take part in everything, to shout
aloud, to dance; this animal ardor and glow in movement, this
uncontrollable blood, this body swelling with liberty, with sap, with
bursts of laughter, this unexpected gift of myself to myself, this
curiosity and contentment, this zest and turmoil....

I have heard others speak of youth, I have seen the word of quicksilver
glitter on the pages of books; I am still ignorant of its meaning; I am
not quite twenty.

I hug to me all that is mine; it is not much. At first there was nothing
above my head but a liquid ocean of silence, I saw nothing but a forest
without perspective, but my watchful solitude became supernatural; and
now as I see the solemnity of the trees, their strong solid reaching up
towards heaven, as I see _myself_, I feel very deeply that I am alive
for the first time.

I do not wish to think of the future. Let the future wait for me; it is
as if a new era were beginning....

And may memory never take possession of this morning of utter unreserve;
memory might distort it. And may memory never say: "This was the day of
your birth and you were excited."

I am not unduly excited.... The present is always very simple. The sun
is only an iridescent frolic, which flits and laughs without resting on
the chapped bark of the pines.

This moment--this and none other--is made up of my robust body, the
lullaby rustle of the wind-stirred leaves, the fragrance of resinous
wood, the screech of a great bird, and the sky cleft by its black and
white passage.

No illumination or help from elsewhere. Slowly, gropingly, by great
effort, I arrive at lukewarm moments in which it is as though my head
were leaning on my heart. Am I going to _know_ at last and make up my
mind? But when I put my hand on my breast, everything collapses and I
have to begin all over again.

It is because there is an empty past which rings to the touch like an
empty bowl, a lack of practice which benumbs your arms, a sort of
shame.... You don't attain to your real truth at the first attempt.

And then above all--you must be honest with yourself--you don't seek
your true self with a _constant_ heart; far oftener you try to distract
your mind from the thought of it. About me on the ground are patches of
light, and I am simply bent upon catching them. I stretch out my hand,
stoop down, put my cheek to them, they quiver and vanish; in their place
a piercing warmth steals dancing over my face.

Then, without my having done anything and without my being worthy of it,
the sacred mood of revolt returns, lifts me up, and forces me to my
knees; I hear the rising breath of a sudden call....

Is it my life, O God? Whither does it go--answer!--when it develops in a
deep breast, and you approach, again and again, as I am now approaching,
something infinite whose name you seek to know?


II

Will the noise never stop? But there are walls to shut it out.

Let them hop about, shout, dance, amuse themselves. As for me, I have
left them, I am alone in my room, I don't want to see or hear them any
more.

I burrow my head desperately in the dark depths of the cushions. In
vain. The eddying music follows its implacable course, drapes its
arabesques of melody about me, and when I stop my ears, still keeps
whirling round and round.

A mazurka. Who was it begged for a mazurka? Ah yes, I remember. When I
left the group of young girls sitting on the watch, a quivering basket
of artificial flowers, one of them was saying: "After the mazurka, I'll
take _him_ out into the garden, where I'll manage to make him kiss me."

Which of them? It is easy to imagine her: they are all alike. She
laughs, I am certain, and expands her budding breasts; her beaded tunic
sparkles and strikes a rivulet of light against her pretty legs; she has
glossy hair faultlessly dressed and when she turns round in the mazurka,
you see she has one of those plump, discreet faces over which feelings
slide without leaving a mark.

But I am forgetting. Mother had to take part in the dance too, as it was
the only one she knew and it unrolled tender memories. She braced
herself, then started off, her features gently composed, leaning on my
father, who accommodated his step to hers while seeming to guide her.
"Let's see, that's not it ..." and they set out again--one, two, three,
four--heavy, both of them, with their reputation as a happy, united
couple, and laden with the looks that follow them.

If one knew....

The engaged couples have disappeared, swallowed up by the nearest dark
corners, where passion is of scarlet and nothing exists but arms and
lips and bodies surmised. When the music will have finished and they
will have reappeared, the chatter and the sharp raw laugh of the young
fiancée will be heard; she will open her eyes wide, like this; her
childish mouth will be seen, and her slim figure, which retains an air
of awkward shyness. "How unsophisticated she is," they will say in
gratitude to her for being an example of the velvety purity of the young
girls.

The last measures. They are all perspiring, out of breath, soberly
triumphant, and as they go back to their chairs each man gives a last
squeeze of the slender arm he is about to relinquish.

My father is entirely engrossed in his guests; he has led mamma, dizzy,
back to her chair, and has moved off. As she sits there with her
eyelashes fluttering, you would think she has returned from a wonderful
long journey. "I am happy, happy," she is reflecting. "I have such a
good husband." The wounds of every day are closed--they have to be
overlooked--and if any cloud darkens the horizon, it is that she is
thinking of me: "But that is what marriage means, my little daughter;
you'll see, it is just a big renunciation: you will change, you too, and
do like the rest; look at me; am I unhappy?"

No, you are not unhappy, my poor little mother, with your injured voice,
your charitable eyes, and your lifeless gestures; you are dead; it is
twenty years since you have had a will of your own, a desirous look, a
single manifestation of impatience, a stray impulse, an hour, anything
you can call your own; it is twenty years since you renounced. But your
husband never goes out, he has his wife and children, he earns your
living, a comfortable living; everyone respects him, and "one cannot
have everything."

As for you, you can live contentedly with a twenty-year-old unhappiness
upon your shoulders; you breathe, you go about; the women around you
have the same fate, and this sustains you. But we, mother, who are
different, the daughters of my generation, we who have sensual hearts,
reasoning minds, new energies--_I_, who have done nothing, I cannot, I
tell you, and if a future is given me, I want to snatch whatever it
holds.

The music has stopped; I cannot hear them any more.... It is as if my
heart were beginning to live.

The tangible darkness of the room deepens little by little. Its peace,
its solitude. I can distinguish the walls, or rather the vaporous
shadows of walls, the windows where the cold light of the garden is
paling, the indistinct rectangle which stretches along the ceiling ...
and in that silence in which God is rooted is the hunted soul returning
to its place.

Ah, shattered again! The music sets the hubbub going....

Besides, certain words are too beautiful, and you say them to intoxicate
yourself, but when they are gone, you realize, your arms are empty.

I asked myself: "What is youth?" This is what youth is: that terrible
thing, that sin, that torture which one must stifle: it is my pure
intoxication defiled by their impure intoxication. I wanted to sing my
youth, give it out, exhale it. Jeering life is below, with its people,
its fouling habits, its sneers and titters. They were quite right; you
can't escape it. You must adapt yourself to it; it is the law. I will
adapt myself; I will have a husband; he will be kind, faithful; there
will be no one beside him; he will be all in all to me; he will skirt
the shores of my being; he will pronounce judgment on all my actions, my
comings and goings, my looks; his word will be final. I shall lie in his
bed every night; he will see my timid body, my naked sleep, my sleeping
life; he will stand upright in my life as in a garden which one is not
afraid to ravage, and when truth will pass by us, he will sit still and
let it pass.

I shall have no more confused desires, no more sudden impulses of
kindliness, no more agonized expectancy, and no more of those
questionings which make a stifling desert about me. I shall be
satisfied. If my hell returns at times to visit me, that red-eyed
narrow-chested hell, my husband will be there, seated opposite me at
table; he will raise his head. "What's the matter, aren't you hungry?"

The soul, the essence, the deep voice from within--words, mere words....
There is nothing but the noise below. And only that. And I must return
to it. Well, come on, go down, speak, smile. All existences are alike.
When there is no longer a single lie left to tell, it means the time has
come to die.

Why obstinately wish to discover a way out and knock your head against a
stone wall? There is no way out. You must not cherish the impossible;
get up and go gaily downstairs. A little cold water, a little powder;
this is a grief you are not permitted to indulge in.

Once again and for all time I shall go to them. If they are boisterous,
spineless, unobservant, with no warmth in them, perhaps after all at
some time at the bottom of their hearts they have felt, if only vaguely
and vanishingly, the jealous fever which weighs like a heart; perhaps
they have suffered; perhaps in looking back, when the sunshine has burst
forth, they have understood that the period of their twenties was
sacred. The twenties! And we, the youth, say to ourselves: wisdom is
within us, the future is within us, and reason, salt, blood, the truth.
It is ourselves, only ourselves. And we wish to open our hearts and say
to those who pass: "Come to us, ask us. It is from us that everything
can be learned; we can explain the secret things, the inner meanings,
the words hidden in the folds of the body, the startling confessions
that are breathed on the highways, everything that is changeful, for
nothing is permanent but change; we know everything, and more than
everything; we who have never loved, we know the whole of love." Perhaps
_they_, the dancers downstairs, have stretched out their arms, tasted
the fresh morning with their lips, felt the beating of a heart of sobs;
perhaps they have once _been_ their hope. I shall do what they have
done; it is my turn; my time for withering will surely come too.

The farandole! Ah, they are holding each other's hands, the old folks
are also joining in. "Let's enjoy ourselves!" Their faces are tense, and
above their footsteps and above the avalanche of their bodies, I hear
the shrill cries of the young girls.

They are leaving the drawing-room; it sounds as if they were
approaching.

Don't come here. Even if it is dark in this room, even if I have wept,
and even if the walls have taken on this aspect of distress, it does not
mean that I can be reduced to your level.

The galop moves faster, wilder. The chain in the center is flung
together in a heap, those at the end are almost scattered. The last one
waves his arm in the air. The noise sickens me.

The floor of my room quivers. I will go down, I will go down to them....

But not yet....


III

It is done....

How shall I bring myself to believe it, how tell myself it is true, that
_it_ is done, that it is an accomplished fact? And why is it that an
absurd recollection obsesses me instead of the thing that has just taken
place? Recollections are not considerate. They thrust themselves upon
you willy-nilly.... It was one day when I was still little and wore my
hair in a plait down my back tied with a red ribbon. An idea struck me
and set me all a-quiver, to surprise my mother by secretly filling her
vase with flowers, the beautiful blue vase with the band of gold, erect
on its massive pedestal like a slim thing on a throne. I was very
careful, I held my breath, my movements were sedulously controlled....
The vase toppled and made a clear, ringing sound. I can still hear it.
My father came in unexpectedly. He stopped--he always was severe--took
me by the shoulder, and shook me like a wind-tossed sapling. Then he
dragged me to my room and on the threshold gave me a slap which sent me
staggering. There was a whistling in my ears. I was drunk, dazed,
completely bewildered.... Then he shut the door.

When I came to my senses, I ran to the glass, I don't know why, for
nothing, "just to see." A wine-colored mark streaked with red was
spreading over my cheek. I held the back of my hand up and felt the glow
even without touching it.

It was burning, but, oddly enough, it did not hurt. I was conscious of
not suffering pain, and instantly a sadness filled me, utter and sudden
as a bitter flood. I didn't know why I was sad. Even now I only glimpse
the reason imperfectly. Children who are simple are also more subtle
than we. It was my fate to be defrauded, not to have a definite reason
for shedding tears over myself, not to suffer in real earnest from an
undeserved punishment, not to be able to cherish the compensation or
possess the impregnable asylum, the inexhaustible resource that grief
always is. It was when I touched my cheek which did not hurt that I
threw myself on my bed crying, alone, yes really alone for the first
time. And to-night it is just the same way.

I have run away from home. Here I am cast out on the street in the
night. There is a fine blinding sleet; I do not know as yet where I am
going to spend the night, but that doesn't hurt any more than the slap
on my cheek hurt. Am I unfeeling? I push on straight ahead, the houses
follow one another, the streets meet and cross, the separate shadows are
only one and the same shadow. I stop now and then arrested by the
consciousness of having forgotten to suffer.

I have been walking a good hour.

How penetrating the night is. An hour of utter aloneness, an hour empty
and bare. Ah, that it may be so until the end. Let misery come, the
unknown, humiliations, but let the truth come also. You perish trying to
do without the truth....

That scene.... Can the memory of it be annihilated, so that nothing
remains, not even the grotesque memory of a memory?

He blazed with fury, he lashed the air first with one arm then the
other; his features swelled with rage and suddenly looked youthful....
Now that I come to think of it, he looked exactly the same as on the day
of the blue vase, only this time he did not dare to slap me. That's why
he gesticulated so wildly. I listened to him at first with an
indifferent air; I was accustomed to his storms--well, the thing would
soon blow over. And before my eyes the familiar scene, which the
lighting up of the chandelier always placidly ushered in, was being set
according to the daily ritual--the smoking tureen, which Leontine, who
had entered with her padded tread, was placing on the table (she removed
her red hands, finger by finger, and stole her sidewise glance at me),
and the transparent play of the glasses, with iridescent stems giving
back the glitter of the silver and the white sheen of the tablecloth.

Although my eyes were occupied in following intently the details of the
dinner-table, a heavy travail was going on within me. A legion of
slumbering desires, halting impulses, dead aspirations were rousing
themselves noiselessly, almost without my consciousness. Thoughts that
come in the morning when one's eyes open, "To-day! to-day," hopes dashed
to the ground, deceptions, sighs--their tune rose to the surface and
changed to a peal which drew me on. Yet I remained on the spot, like a
beast with lowered head led by a rope.

I saw his gesture in time.

He was advancing towards me, his fist raised. Did he mean to strike?
What did it matter? I was no longer in a condition to judge. A roll of
thunder was shivering my inner trouble into a thousand bits, there was a
flash of lightning which unloosened everything, even my tongue. I was
speaking, I was speaking at last....

What did I say? Really, almost nothing, because in the frantic swiftness
of his anger he broke in upon my first words. "Get out, get out!" He
showed me his hand as if he were cursing his hand, too, forever.

The door closing behind me made a very long and very impressive sound.

I was on the landing of the staircase. No sound. The electric light
cruelly exaggerated the red spiral of the carpet and touched each copper
bar of the banisters with a tiny comet.

Alone.

And suddenly ... what did it all mean? I no longer understood.
That outburst of cries, that tempest, that sort of comedy, my
reply ... what ... I went and sat down, tempted equally to laugh and to
cry. I wanted to think ... but it was already done, an almost outside
force was pushing me off my hinges. "Escaped!" I was like a prisoner who
sees the door left open inadvertently.

I knocked gently, my entire presence of mind returning to me in a rush.
Leontine came with a pseudo-contrite expression and an air of saying
"Hush!" while beneath her manner was the concentrated delight of an
animal lying in wait. "They are at dinner," she whispered while I got my
things together, a frock, a blouse, some toilet articles, a little
money, some linen, a few books.

I closed the front door on myself, slowly, without faltering, slowly. It
was done. It was not difficult.

A faint wind blew from the street below which chilled me.... Ah, you are
trembling already, you are drawing back. That fine courage of yours,
where is it? Where is your all-powerful will, and your still surer
hope?...

It was not out of cowardice that I was trembling; but as I advanced
towards my Self, street by street, house by house, through my first
ordeal, I got a blunter, deeper knowledge of my Self, and a sudden fear
entered my breast.

I am really not a strong person. What had been struggling in me so
forcibly was not my own strength; it was simply the reaction from the
_others_. A strong person would know at the very first step what mandate
to derive from the power animating him; before destroying he would have
built up. When a bird finds its cage open and takes flight, it does not
hesitate, it has the idea of space, it spreads its wings, it knows where
to fly, and how high.

I know nothing. I am setting out, that's all. Neither before nor behind
me is the irresistible urge which is the start of a great career. Nor do
I see close by the rising shape of my life. Nor about me is the ringing
mirth of faery liberty. Nothing but a little tiredness, a little
emptiness in my head, a little emptiness in my heart.... I am not a
strong person.

Good-bye, mother, good-bye to your transparent eyes, to your shoulders
which will always shrug for the wrong side, good-bye to your tender
lying.

You see, I am no longer faint-hearted, because I can walk away from you
forever and venture upon a vague future without a glow of eagerness. All
I need is something to beckon to me.... There is nothing ahead of me
except the quiet artery of a thoroughfare hemmed in by inky houses and
the darkness, which melts away at the panes of the street-lamps and
makes them dance and quiver below and twinkle like eyes at the top.
Liberty has the taste of fog....


BOARDING-HOUSE

Shall I cross this unfriendly threshold covered with a mangy rug? I
should so much like to stop walking and go to sleep. Shall I choose this
house which exhales the smell of a cellar, this gloomy shelter, these
dingy walls? Shall I....

Come on, fate is everywhere. This is the place I must enter.


IV

I have found work....

A fortnight, a hundred hopes, a fortnight.... The unfriendly atmosphere
of stiff faces. "The position is filled." Stairs mounted four steps at a
time, then descended gravely, catechisms begun with questions that
embarrass and so often ending with questions that make you blush. Then
one fine day--by what magic?--the position is not filled, and you
answer yes to everything required; the sky is clear, you will start
to-morrow.

I have not drained to its dregs the joy there is in working at my
nondescript job from morning until evening. To work for your bread, to
feel dignified and straight. You cannot talk, to be sure, but at least
you do not lie, you are in repose, you let the waves of your being pile
up, and every evening you return to a docile home, where the silence is
always nigh to flowering....

The boarding-house, however, is not hospitable; you never satisfy your
hunger, and my narrow room with its threadbare carpet and mouldy ceiling
is like a badly kept cage. But it's Sunday morning and I have undertaken
to make it inviting.

A handkerchief twisted about my hair, a white blouse and bare arms....
By persisting and rubbing again, by chasing the dust, by trying a place
for the books twenty times over, by pushing the chairs about, by
scraping away the layers of encrusted filth, I am bound to triumph. To
judge of the effect, I stop several times and perch on the tattered arm
of the red-flowered armchair; the place looks better already. But to it
again!

No pictures, no ornaments. I have taken down the sentimental prints
hypocritically concealing the scars of the wall-paper. Nothing but the
bare room and the high window with its dim panes.

The bed of a doubtful mahogany burrows into the bashful retreat of the
alcove. The wardrobe would wabble if it were not secured by a thick
rope tied to the rosette on the front. The rosette is typical of a
curious character that the room has for all its dinginess. There was an
attempt to decorate with a profusion of flowers. Flowers everywhere,
spread broadcast over the walls, cutting off the corners of the
wash-boards, and trailing their sallow procession in a border around the
top of the walls. They are even woven into the stuff on the back of the
armchair, they appear almost effaced in the maroon-colored linoleum, and
ravelled out and faded in the cretonne curtains.... In this cemetery,
the sweet violets blooming on my table have a sensual, almost insolent
splendor; their petals look red.

For all its bareness, my room radiates light; the meagre sunlight shines
in through the window and is already transfiguring the place; I feel
comfortable in it.

       *       *       *       *       *

Oftener and oftener I ask myself what is my reason for existence, my
true, my sole destiny. Doubtless one must sleep in a room for a long
time before encountering the soul that prepares itself there.

I am, I know, like a person who wants to build a big house without
having a site or materials, who says nevertheless: "No, not this site,
no, not this material." But this is of no importance, I realize. Once
you have submitted to the wholesome discipline enjoined by poverty, you
receive in return energetic muscles and a patient outlook.

I wait; and no longer having any need to complain or criticize, I wait
with a smile. Everything is simpler than one thinks, and everything is
easier, and it seems to me that--

Someone is knocking at the door.

"May I come in?"

The landlady, Mme. Noël.

Mme. Noël is more of an imp than a woman. She has the figure, the voice,
and the darting roguishness of a slim young thing of twelve.

When I was getting settled the first morning, I suddenly heard her
insect-step close by--I had left my door open--and without giving me
time to draw back, she besieged me with questions:

"How old do you think I am?"

"I don't know."

"Guess anything."

"Thirty-four ... thirty-three ... thirty."

On looking at her closely a few seconds, it seemed to me she was
probably forty.

"Fifty-two, my dear!" To convince me of her age she stuck her finger
under a slab of hair waved and dyed red and actually exposed an
abundance of fading white hair.

Her face was no bigger than a fist, with cheeks like baked apples. Her
shrewd naked eyes pried about. She came farther into the room and
perched lightly on one of my rickety pieces of furniture, balancing it
with her body. Then she began to unfold the story of her life,
rummaging, unpacking, digging it up by huge armfuls: her husband, her
lover, and then another, a painter she adored. The first one came
back.... Love, adventures.... So it is possible to speak about your love
and adventures?

Before leaving me--I was quite dazed; which must have been
evident--lowering her voice a little:

"_He_ is so good.... I myself am not crazy about him, but _he_ loves me
so...."

"He?"

"The boarding-house--it is not only for what it pays, you understand.
It's for _the company_!"

"The company?"

With the springy elegance of a cat, her tapering elbows breaking the
evenness of her outline, Mme. Noël slid on to the bed. The mattress
reared up, the coverings billowed, the pillow, struck slantwise, was
about to fall. But she needed so little room, and she carefully patted
the hollow she made for herself.

"Well, is there nothing you want?... Ah, these young things--a
handkerchief round their heads and they still look pretty."

Instinctively I pulled off my handkerchief. I stammered: "To keep off
the dust" and--what could I do to make her go?--I smiled awkwardly.

"Oh, by the way, I came near forgetting to tell you. If ... you want to
receive in your room ... after all, what of it? You surely have
somebody.... It's just between us women. A beautiful girl like you, it
would be a shame.... You won't be bashful, will you? To me love is
sacred. And you will tell your little secrets to Mme. Noël? I have told
you mine. Only of course you will be careful not to make any noise. I
say this on account of the Russians in the next room. They used to
receive swarms of people up to all hours. The rumpus! I tell you, I put
a stop to it. But you, you're different. I liked you from the start."

I had to answer, I was going to answer ... but my tongue was dry with
confusion. Besides, how edge a word in? There she was back at her huge
pile of love stories. She even tried to pump me, lifting and lowering
her powdered little nose; one scrap of information she set aside for use
presently. At last she disappeared trippingly with a pointed _au revoir_
which crisped the hide of her cheeks.

An odor of imitation white lilac persists, but so much sunshine streams
in through the open window, so many quickening exhalations that the odor
will soon be dissipated.

Love ... yes....

Perhaps by listening hard to the inner voice you may get to let it speak
out loud. If I give in to this habit, I want to hear myself say: "I do
not like love." I even want to add: "Keep it away," because love seems
to be an outside force which smites or spares without your having
deserved or banished it.

I have seen too many couples in which the man is nothing but a craving
for conquest, the woman nothing, absolutely nothing, but a need to be
conquered. I have seen too many who have not been visited by grace and
have damned themselves to mutual ruin. A veritable attack and a
semblance of defence. I have seen what is taken for love.

I have seen women steeped in trickery; the wilier they were the more
love surrounded them. I have seen the heavy looks of men set about
everywhere like traps.... I am worth nothing as yet, but my sound
heart--I refuse it. And I say it quite low to exorcise the invisible
danger: I do not like love.

"To me love is sacred...."

I understand fully what those small, naked, prying eyes were glorifying.
And in the adventurous life of those eyes I see neither more nor fewer
blemishes and lies than in the eyes of the young girls. Neither more nor
fewer. At moments there even flashed in those eyes sparks, reflections,
gleams....

       *       *       *       *       *

A cloud is darkening the window; my room is obliterated.

But if by leaning forward and boldly offering my face to the sun and
stretching out further, I could take in all his golden bounty and all
his light?

I withdraw hastily from the springtime window because when a gentle
flame ran over my wrist I became aware of lack of dignity: my untidy
hair, the dust on me, the disorderly room.

Since the sun lives, since I long for it, love must exist. I shall find
the proof of it. Quickly, my Sunday frock, order about me, flowers....

Keep it far away from me. I do not feel I am ready....


V

Trude's twenty-fourth birthday. Twenty-four candles around the monster
of a cake. Trude announces that Edda, the youngest of us, is to light
the candles when we're ready for the toasts and the dessert.

I lent my vases, my old red-flowered armchair, and my draperies. This
morning when the preparations were completed and their voices in triple
unison leapt to me: "Come and look!" I was in the room in three bounds
like an answering echo.

It really looked nice. Who would have recognized Clara's impossible
room? Heavy ropes of foliage dotted with roses festooned the walls, my
beautiful blue stuff entirely hid the toilet-table, flowers covered the
mantelpiece and starred the corners of the mirror; and the table covered
with a white cloth was gay with pyramids of fruit.

Now the guests are all here except Markowitch, who said beforehand he
would be late. "I am not going to seat you," Clara cries to them above
the rising hubbub. "Choose your own places." And she turns her back to
give the last touches to the table. Her heavy braided knot hangs low on
the nape of her neck. In spite of the two spreading wings of her skirt
at her waist line she looks thinner than ever in her greenish dress.
Someone glides up behind her, a pink arm for an instant twines about her
waist. "Clara, can I help?" She turns round. Dahlia.

Dahlia is not an ordinary creature; she is no one; she is _the young
girl_. But that really is saying nothing. Juliet and Miranda are dead;
our times are not made for a creature of the dawn who is supposed to be
finer than the promise of herself, but who is already herself; who is
supposed not to be ignorant, who is pure and who, in order to love, does
not await love.

Dahlia comes of another age; she comes from the country of fjords and
legends. Her father was exiled, she wanted to go with him, they had no
money; they made almost the whole journey on foot. One evening when
their heavy limbs would carry them no further, they were stranded in a
squalid quarter on the outskirts of Paris. They took a room.... The next
day the man did not get up. And since then Dahlia has bowed her head to
the yoke and works all day long for a poor monthly wage in an office
where the walls press upon her like a vice. "It's to keep up my father's
spirits," she said with a shake of her head when I saw her the second
time.

I shall never forget the first time. I had come in a little later than
usual, and probably more tired, too. I did not even think of lighting
the lamp, the dusk was unreal ... heavens!... a vision took shape
between the threshold and the shadows, scarcely daring.... There was a
brow set in pale gold, the delicate blur of a face, eyes like a
thousand forget-me-nots; between two young arms the strait, retiring
modesty of the angels, and their light movements also. She drew nearer.
"We have made a cake, the sort we make at home, let's divide." She
disappeared. Her present remained behind on my table....

In her thin linen dress this evening, with a whiff of paradise about
her, Dahlia seems to be enveloped in a pink illumination. She smiles on
everybody as one must smile at happiness when one catches a glimpse of
it.

"Your beautiful red dress," she assures Trude, gently clasping the soft
spindles of her hands.

How can Trude remain simple and genuinely Puritanical beneath her
trappings of beaded crimson plush and cuirass of some hodgepodge of gold
caught in at the hips. I fancy she is too simple for finery to add to
her personality. Real or imitation the fineries give way; it is she who
adorns them. Whatever she wears is sanctified and comes to resemble her,
everything except her threefold name, Gertrude, Trude, Trudel.

She has the peculiar brilliance of the Russians, sombre, subterranean,
almost undefinable. Whatever she does, whether she laughs, or is
excited, or talks with fire of ordinary things, she always has a finger
lifted in the air and her wide gaze raised Christ-like. She has the
mouth of an evangelist. Her irises set in clear white have glints of
jet. She wears the glossy foliage of her black locks straight back from
her forehead, an intense forehead crowning her like a diadem.... What
other woman would dare the supreme immodesty of displaying a bare
forehead? What woman would gain by doing it? The strange thing is, Trude
is beautiful only by a kind of miracle; the least little bit more, and
her cheeks would stick out over the cheekbones of a Tartar; the least
little bit less, and her nose would be obliterated. The lakes of her
eyes tranquilly conceal the raging waves in their depths. How many, by a
shade of ill-luck, have escaped beauty? Trude, by a miracle, has escaped
ugliness.

Mania, her sister, so different with her agile, insinuating body,
lovingly fingers the presents. "You have not seen everything, Trude. Do
come." Books, prints, china, and elegant embroidered articles--pretty
things all from poor people who will soon be setting out on foot in the
darkness for their distant lodgings in order to save carfare. For we are
all as poor as poor can be. Except Markowitch. Mania told me he was
"immensely rich," had at least two hundred dollars a month spending
money.

It is hard to say whether it is our poverty that creates this
comradeship among us. You come in and you feel at ease, you feel _good_,
you love all of them, even Lonnie, the little Swiss with cheeks
lacquered with rouge, and even Michael with his tight compressed nose
peaking out of the profile of a hen--Michael perhaps more than the
others.

So much the worse for Markovitch: we are going to begin. The hubbub dies
down a little; everyone finds a place, two on the same chair, some on
the bed, a good many on the floor, young men, young girls holding each
other's hands, so close together, so pure, that I can still not accustom
myself....

"It is your turn, Mania."

A song, liquid, then fiery, comes from among the reeds and carries you
far off--down there--to those wild plains chiseled by the wind where the
streams, driven to the surface and threshed by their rocky beds, have
the fury of torrents. What a potency of attention on these serious
faces!

Isn't that Markovitch?

"Come in!"

With his hardened features wrought in granite he, too, is a force. His
bulbous eyes search the gathering and find what they are looking for....
Dahlia raises her head, blushes, and is veiled in delicate purple up to
the golden edge of her hair. She is aware of the love of this great
spoilt boy; we are all aware of it; but she has refused to be his wife
because she does not love him. He will not speak of it again;
nevertheless they continue to meet straightforwardly. With a free,
rounded movement of her arms, like the handles of an amphora, she points
to a vacant place beside her. "Here." Then in dismay: "Don't make a
noise."

Prikoff is telling of a childhood recollection. You seem to see him as
both the fantastic gnome and the father in the tale. You see huts
assailed by icy blizzards, hazy visions of bodies blue with cold, love
of _somewhere else_.... Despite his huge jaw and unkempt mass of hair,
what benignity, mildness, and gentleness. It is as though he were
talking to little children gathered close about him.

Is time passing? No one notices it, we have forgotten it. Time escapes
youth gathered together and bound in a sheaf; it escapes Clara's bosom
from which a plaintive _lied_ is rising, while the hungry hands around
Dahlia, who is doling out the manna, make time tarry. A real poor folk's
supper, the supper of persons who are hungry at all hours. Thick slices
of rare meat on bread, solid pastry, big bright fruit. One should see
these robust young girls munching even the meat.

How fond I am of them all! Among them I feel for the first time what the
human voice really is; for the first time feel the warmth which is
shared and communicated from being to being, which makes of a single
entity a group of entities, of a field of separate ears of corn the
human harvest.

I wouldn't know how to choose among them. But one of the young men might
slightly frighten and disconcert me; his accent might seem barbarous. My
trim dress, my too-dainty shoes, and my fluffy blouses, all the things
that constitute my element, might cause me to feel compunction. And
maybe too I might feel ashamed of the hour I spend every morning
anxiously pressed close to the glass as if I were begging myself to be
beautiful.

I should have the same feeling on behalf of the girls as for myself; at
bottom I do not discriminate between men and women. I should go even
further. If friendship drew me to one of them, my compunction would
change to grief. Really, can one forgive Clara her over-trimmed dress
conceived in a nightmare? Can one forgive all of them their down-at-heel
shoes, the lack of care and regard for others that they show in their
appearance?

Should I adjust my days with no ups and downs in them to their volcanic
days? "What's it all coming to?" cries Trude sometimes, and throws
herself on her bed sobbing and losing herself in her emotions. Time
passes and dies--one day, two days--suddenly she rises. She has
forgotten her office, her meals, everything. She leans her forehead
against the window-pane, and her tears flow bitterly.

If we became intimate, would they forgive me my neat room, my
punctuality, my scrupulous adherence to rule and system, my moderation
in everything? In the first days of our being neighbors they used to
say: "You know, the little Frenchwoman who always comes and goes at the
same time and makes so little noise and uses powder?" That quite
described me.

This evening of the reunion of these serious creatures runs on by leaps
and bounds and rises to a pitch by fits and starts. There is a glowing
dewiness about Dahlia; Markovitch follows her with the green pupils of
his bulbous eyes. And all of a sudden the whole company is fired at the
same time. Without expecting to they burst into song--who threw the
spark?--and the room lights up like a hearth all aglow with voices....

Fifteen flames mingled, but only a single flame. It is a song that rages
and mounts higher, and jerks and jolts, and is convulsed with raucous
shouts, in which the joy becomes frenetic and the laughter has a shudder
in it. They bring to their singing the fervor and the earnestness of
application that they bring to everything.

       *       *       *       *       *

I am sitting in the retreat of the little chimney-piece hidden from
their eyes, and I should like to ask their forgiveness for not knowing
their fervid song and not being in harmony with them. I should like to
ask pardon of all of them for everything.

I should like to ... I should like to....

Breathes there a human being on earth who has nothing to forgive, whom
one has nothing to forgive?...

To be with him, his equal, close to him, face to face with him, _and
alone with one_.


VI

The two Loiseaus and I were sitting in their dining-room, a narrow
rectangle with waxed floor and small straw mats here and there exactly
like a convent parlor.

The evening--a dark evening out of doors--encompassed the walls with
mystery. The darker it grew the less we felt like getting up and
lighting the lamp. Why bother after all? There was a whole grate full of
flames. They leaped and emitted a lively red crackling, shot forth
luminous circles, hung high in the hearth, dancing tongues of fire,
orange-colored mountain crests, aigrettes of blue light, grimaces of
demons ... whirlpools ... fairyland ... crash and collapse ...
foolery....

All of us felt drowsy, each imprisoned in his own silence. The shadows
quivered gently above our shoulders. The silence, a trifle stagnant
emanating from the three of us, seemed to be compressed up under the
toned-down white of the ceiling.

I was curled up in front of the hearth, my eyes at the mercy of the
glowing surge, my chin thrust forward. A languid sense of well-being
spread all around, played over the hollow of your arms, and padded the
nape of your neck: you thought of nothing.

The two Loiseaus are people who know how to be silent; you spend Friday
evening with them, and everything--except themselves--tells you that
they are pleased with the presence that makes three silhouettes dance in
the room.

They are not very old, but there's no denying they _are_ old bachelors,
because in their company you don't feel the torturing constraint and
embarrassment which the _others_ make you feel because you're a woman.

When you come, they hold out their hands good-naturedly. Rémy, the great
big patient Rémy, takes my hat, my gloves rolled into a ball, and my
cloak. He steps on my cloak and is vaguely alarmed. This adds to his
confusion, and when he hangs my things on the rack in the hall he is so
awkward in his carefulness that my hat rolls to the ground. We sit down
and talk of the office--you cannot start by not talking--and when every
topic is exhausted, I suggest making tea, a suggestion well worth the
making just to rouse the gourmand look in the old boys' eyes. "Oh yes,
some tea." You can almost hear them purr.

I busy myself with an ease become superlative. It is possible that for
an instant I find myself a woman again between two attentive men,
converted into the household goddess--she who performs the rites and
dispenses the food and offers the milk, just a thimbleful, while the
men's eyes are upon her as she bends over the cups. This constrains my
movements and makes me tread more lightly and mince my steps. I scarcely
displace the shadows.

My two old friends!

Rémy pursues his reading with a frank absorption which dominates his
whole body. His heavy forehead bulges, his clenched fists form two
undefined cubes on the page. Migo (when I look at him I call him Migo,
too), rolls his cigarette. This evening he is inclined to be talkative.
He rubs up his memory:

"The first day you came to the office what a timid manner you had."

The recollections play upon an irresistible note. Rémy emerges from his
corner, his good blue eyes rising to the bait; a vision hung on a
thread, persons long faded. And it must be confessed that all three of
us let ourselves be captured; the same smile widens our features.

The door-bell rings.... Yes, it rang.

The triple peal sends our heads apart. Rémy rises, hostile and resigned.
He is always the one to open the door.

Waiting in every circumstance, even when nothing is at stake, is
painful. The spirit recoils and contracts, and space is left for
thoughts of an inevitable misfortune and for the twinkling vision of the
things which disappear. In a single instant life can completely change
its aspect....

A sweeping draught. It brings in the voice of a young man. I want to
leave. The two Loiseaus hover about him. "What a surprise! How nice!"
They rub their hands. "Come in and sit down!"

It is too late to leave; the stranger is already bowing to me, and the
mingled exclamations pretty well hide my stammering. I am so ashamed of
myself for stammering.

The newcomer seats himself near the fire on the little black chair to
the right of Migo. He wants the lamp to stay unlighted. But it is no
longer the same. Our silence has been routed, and the languor, and the
warmth also....

I am in a good position to observe him. How old? Thirty-four,
thirty-five perhaps. Is he really handsome? Hard to say. He is too dark.
His face is strongly chiseled, his cheeks sunken, his forehead hard as
a hammer. The long line of his jaw lends refinement to his countenance,
which is lit by eyes fearlessly open, in which the gray, in spots, seems
steeped in phosphorous. His gestures are repressed and rather
commanding. He talks little, but when he does talk his fire contrasts
with the rarity of his words, gives them value, makes them seem to issue
all alive from the bowels of the earth, while he sits with his body
upright, as if at a distance, the flicker from the hearth enamelling,
then removing, the burnished black of his hair ... I bethink myself: we
have not yet had tea. I hope it will be just right this evening.

One by one I take out of their hiding-place the cups with the gold
lines, the lovely ones, the only embroidered tea-cloth, the teapot with
the golden spout, and the flowers, wan in the night. I set the luxury of
these things on the table. With my head shrouded in the light-dark and
my shoulders swathed in a fleece of shadow, how good it is to be among
them, screened by my movements, not sitting but standing so that I can
look upon the happy trio. Him especially. For alongside of him, who
hardly speaks, the two Loiseaus, beaming and voluble, seem suddenly tame
and stunted.

A pleasant sight, quite new to me, this group of three faces on which a
common childhood springs to life, fond joys shared in the past, and
names that are no more. They have almost forgotten that a woman is
present. This reassures me.

But if _he_, when he raises his eyes and sees me, is going to remember I
am a woman and turn to me too civilly and kindle the usual warfare under
the bland honey of the customary phrases! No ... not he ... not this
man. He is so frank and so fine with his two friends; what he says is so
right, and he speaks so directly, without straining for effect. No, not
he.

I offer each of them a trembling cup which they accept without
trembling. Then I quickly withdraw again to the protecting shadow where
my place is hollowed out, to listen to this amazing presence which my
heart scans.

He has spoken to me.

He has spoken to me as never yet a man has spoken: without trying to see
or please me, without any ulterior thoughts, just as he speaks to the
two Loiseaus, probably just as he speaks to himself when alone. It does
happen, then, that from the depths of simple obscurity, unexpectedly,
one hears real words, real naked words from a man?

I answer in the same good faith, I no longer feel any fear or the need
for self-defence. I feel a delight which helps me. And the perfume of
the words that rises from the four of us--it is upon him I bestow it.

From the embers comes a live heat which settles on your cheekbones; your
neck unconsciously stretches towards the red point where the
conversation, which also crackles and sparkles, rests its centre. This
stranger close to me seems like a king leaning over the edge of a
fountain; the light carves his smile and courts that familiar brow....
Is he still a stranger?

But suddenly, what time is it? Twenty past eleven! Time to go. Yes, yes,
I must go.

At the shock which brings me to my feet the whole group breaks up. They
discuss who is to see me home, and I have to refuse three offers at the
same time.

Give me your brotherly hands, I want to go home by myself. And you, turn
upon me those eyes so different from other men's eyes.

As I go down the stairs the fidgety advice repeated a hundred times,
which Rémy hurls at me over the banisters every Friday, descends upon my
head. "Don't walk so fast, look where you're going." The last scraps of
warning roll like billiard balls. Rémy, old friend, have no fear, go in
again. I am carrying away an immense wonder. It is hurrying me along in
its round. I want to dance, to cry....

Rémy's voice is cut off abruptly, along with the cone of light in which
the steps reeled.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the street ... a narrow, formidable street, full of a palpable,
limpid night.

       *       *       *       *       *

Whither goes the volatile sky pursued by the pale flock of clouds?
Whither go those grand transports which seize and overwhelm you? Here
below there is a man honest in his voice, straightforward in his look, a
brotherly man. And I have met him!


VII

For the first time I have spoken about myself to a living being. Not so
much in words or details or episodes as in the profound desire to open
up the depths of my soul and finally give a true view of it.

To talk of oneself! That enigmatic, incomplete, elusive, warm thing,
tossed by conflicting currents, adding to itself constantly, this thing
that one is. To say what it is!... To tell of it with modest lips, with
lids raised, with voice sure, with silence....

I should never have believed in the possibility of such a boon. And in
the first minutes of our being together on Sunday, I still did not know
of the possibility.

Two weeks after the Friday at the Loiseaus', I was stamping my feet with
the cold in the queue of people waiting at the little door of the
theatre to buy the two-franc seats. I happened to turn and was
mechanically studying the faces--there he stood eight or nine persons
away....

My delighted gaze rested upon him so hard that his head turned
compliantly. He saw me, his face lighted up. The crowd was interested,
the women stared with their unabashed curiosity, the men joked, but not
one of them, you may be sure, was willing to budge. Through the
interstices between the hats, our cheeks glowing with the wind, we
exchanged greetings, and I divined rather than heard that he wanted to
see me. It was at that moment that I felt as if I were flinging myself
overboard.

"Next Sunday at my house if you like?"

A strange current was carrying me away. Certain prejudices must be
deep-rooted. What was so extraordinary about receiving him in my room?
The fact that I took the initiative of inviting him seemed to be
trumpeted to the four quarters of the globe; and when his answer came
calm and natural, I couldn't continue to face him; I had to hide my
burning ears up against the old gentleman in the greatcoat, who fastened
his mocking persistent faun's gaze upon me. During the concert I felt by
turns as if I had committed a crime and a glorious feat.

"Two o'clock," I had called to him.

I was up early in the morning, and by ten minutes to two everything was
ready. The flowers and foliage bought at market had had time to freshen
up and expand. The petals of the anemones, shut up like a tight case in
the morning, were spreading in a crown around the big pompoms of black
pistils. The bed was successfully disguised by a draped covering, and my
room, all polished and groomed, shone like a jewel. It looked really
homelike. At the last moment I put on my dress of white woollen stuff,
the one with the cord girdle and elbow sleeves. The hardest task was the
arranging of my hair. Not to look untidy with a fiery mop of a head, yet
to be a little beautiful, oh joy, beautiful, to please him. I set-to
furiously on the image in the looking-glass.

Five minutes to two. Three little raps, three moments of insensibility,
three echoes.

My hand trembled slightly as I held it out to him, and when his gaze
travelled over me, an amazing sense of shame seized and chilled me. I
promptly hid my arms in my scarf. But my terror was quickly dissipated.
He conveyed the lofty ease of people of perfect simplicity. He was there
with all his manly gravity, all his attention, and his good smile
imparting a sense of security. I felt his calm transfuse itself into me.

We sat down. I no longer know how we began or by what avenue of
conversation he came to tell me of his crushed childhood, his needy
youth, his mother, his studies, the present career he had chosen for
himself.... I listened; I followed him from year to year, from picture
to picture, from place to place; and within me a larger and larger void
was filling up with hopes and thoughts that seemed to have dwelt there
always.

What a flood of sweetness, what warmth and space, and what.... I hardly
breathed....

"Your turn...."

He was sitting on my little chair near the window with his back partly
to the light. From the depths of the armchair, the white fleece of my
scarf looping at my feet, I saw the quality of his gaze.

My story was not so straight and consecutive. Here and there I lost my
way and had to stop, with nothing more to say. Nevertheless, insight
into me kindled under his eyes, we advanced together as happy and at as
even a pace as if we were holding each other's hands; and my flimsy past
assumed a little weight.

We spoke of love--you always speak of love when you talk about
yourself--but without distinguishing it from ourselves. Who can say what
love is? Love is I, it is he. On the day when I shall love, love will be
changed and will resemble me and will no longer be that love of which
one speaks in general. It will be I--I simply stirred up.

When we were silent under the influence of the slack atmosphere of the
room, we two souls at the same pitch, my gaze plunged in the creamy
muslin of the curtains, I knew he found me beautiful. I realized I was
waiting for him to say so. I would have hugged his words, I should have
liked to see them come from his lips without covetousness, I should have
wanted them to be nothing but my craving for beauty....

I believe I closed my eyes. A loving alliance took place between my
visible body and my hidden being. I was no longer divided against
myself. Thanks to him....

How long did we remain that way, grave and smiling, opposite each other?
I cannot tell exactly....

The flowers on the table with widespread petals held out their black
hearts to us. A gentle pearl-gray breeze was stirring the curtains.

He is gone, is he? His going made no break or clash and left no sense of
finality. I had scarcely felt him take my hand when he released it, the
doorway was empty. I returned to the empty armchair in the room ennobled
by both his absence and his presence, my arms weighed down and my
spirits in eclipse....

       *       *       *       *       *

Who is speaking? Who is there?

Mme. Noël, the live puppet, is sticking her painted head in at the door;
the thread of light holds it as in a snare. She _here_ at this
moment!... One impatient start and I go over to her. "My compliments, a
handsome fellow!" This time it is too much. "Such looks, such eyes! Good
for you!" Letting out a chain of cackles, the little floury face
retreats under cover, the streak of light narrows, gilds the frame of
the door, and dissolves in the shadow.

       *       *       *       *       *

Alone.... But am I still alone?

The cold window-pane refreshes my forehead. The street lounges lazily in
its Sunday repose, and the room into which I turn back embraces a
fateful, solemn evening; its ripe perfume rises like incense, the
flower-decked mantelpiece resembles an altar beneath a cluster of
tapers.

I no longer know ... I no longer know ...


VIII

He is often late. I have noticed that I am almost invariably the one to
have to wait. Work in his office ends at the same time as mine, but the
two places are at a distance from each other, and it always seems a long
time before I see him coming.

The first minutes go by unheeded because the seven o'clock outpouring
streams by where I post myself on the sidewalk. No signal is given. At a
mysterious order and at a given moment a black wave foams and contracts
at the exit, and as in greeting to the open light sends up a thousand
exclamations, which make one long cry of relief.

This evening it is still light, and the escaping crowd is not inclined
to hurry. The sluggishness of the air, the sonorousness, the droning,
the motley street ... the crowd condenses and remains coagulated on one
spot. Is it ever going to decide to pass on!

When the day's work is over, you come back to the brilliant world
marvelling at the holiday sky, and blinking.... Summer is knocking at
the window ... it does you good to be standing on your legs expanding
your lungs. One group attracts you. They all look like wags, their
conversation fascinates; if you were to listen to them, you would remain
standing there with your hands in your pockets. But you are being
awaited at home, and the circle almost as soon as formed breaks up with
casual farewells flung over the shoulder.

When the women hurry along, rain or shine, it is in the subconscious
urge to show themselves to everyone. Those who swelled the hubbub a
little while ago with jostling elbows and foreheads set like a
ram's--"get a move on you!"--are the first to display their pronounced
busts and the slowest to walk away with chirps and winged signs and nods
and a swaying of sinuous backs.

The street is emptied. Some women still pace up and down the block. They
are waiting for someone too.

There he is!

From the busy far-end of the street, across the eddies of people,
nothing to tell me it is he but the shape of his hat. Again I feel the
security that his appearance always brings.

His tall figure hemmed in by a group detaches itself, grows bigger, and
becomes more recognizable step by step. I go to meet him, slowly,
smiling despite myself as he hurries, and when our hands touch, my heart
breaks into bloom.... An overwhelming instant ... a soft ecstasy ...
fusion.... And every evening it is as if I had never found him....

Let us go by the boulevards. The weather is so lovely, we have plenty of
time.

Our questions tumble over one another, clear away bothersome trifles, do
not even wait for answers, take everything for granted--what happened
during the day, all the details, everything, and more than everything.

As a matter of fact, what we listen to is our footsteps. We keep even
pace, our tread makes the same sound. A discovery flooding the heart--it
is a single step that is carrying us along.

We walk side by side, and the space between us does not divide us. We
are followed and preceded by a whole procession of couples moving with a
slowness strangely rhythmic which leaves a wake behind.

       *       *       *       *       *

We have told everything, everything we know, and everything we are. It
is not a question of being alike in order to be comrades, of springing
from the same roots or having drunk from the same source. The thing is,
for each to serve the truth which the other lives with the same heart as
his own, different truth.

No, it is not a question of being alike. Haven't I observed a hundred
times that we are very different? How can one wish it otherwise? How
conceive that we whose age is not the same, whose bodies are so
different, whose characters are well-defined, and whose careers are
opposite should respond to the same influences? Why, each of us responds
to the veriest trifles according to his own temperament.... Does he
perceive as I do this street, the flower-beds of the big cafés, the
crowd with glowing eyes, the gritty dust? Is this instant the same
instant to him? I know it is not....

A block. How shall we get through? The crossing of the huge
thoroughfares, with its din, its black swarming thousands, dashing
motors, clanging of bells, tooting of horns, discharges its mechanical
eruption upon the city. Let us run. He has slipped his strong arm under
mine; we take long joyous strides and finally land in peaceful territory
out of breath and radiant.

Here at last is a boulevard where one can breathe, then an old
countrified street where silence has nested. We plunge into its
tranquillity.

But ... I hadn't noticed--the red rises to my cheeks--his arm is still
under my arm, confident, natural. How is it that it never occurred to me
that it should always be so?

Shall I dare to tell him how sweet it is to feel him so close to me, our
two lives joined, our two souls welded--how _necessary_ it is to me?

       *       *       *       *       *

Feelings depart quickly, and joy too. I can scarcely follow my feelings
and my joy. When my heart has slowed down, yes, _I_ will speak to _him_,
I shall feel his breath on my voice, his warmth against my breast. And I
shall obey this visible will which comes running to me, springing from
the smiling house-fronts, falling from the sky padded with pink.

We are drawing near to my lodgings.

Still this street, where the gracious wind dances for its own pleasure.
A few moments, and we shall be leaving each other.

Leaving each other...?

Ah, I know now what to say. I know what the will of a little while ago
wanted, and my life and his life. I am going to find the words....

"Listen. I have been thinking. Don't let us part again. Never. It is I
who am asking you. Let us live together ... I cannot say anything else,
that sums up everything, it is everything, to live together. Is it
love?... I don't know yet ... but I know we ought to live together, and
you, you know it too."

My voice is thick and has the taste of tears; it scrapes in my dry
throat, it won't come out. He takes my two hands, draws me close to him,
his gaze caressing my eyes which strain to escape. With his body he
supports my rigid, awkward body, which struggles hard to remain upright
and does nothing but tremble.

       *       *       *       *       *

The street has disappeared, the sound of the universe, the setting sun
which in a golden glory celebrates our sacred betrothal.

From under my closed eyelids I no longer perceive anything but a heavy
black pendulum with impetuous strokes, which beats against my breast and
henceforth regulates our joint existences....


IX

My family was exultant.

Behold me returned to "proper" life, from which I had so long been
absent, by the massive trap-door of marriage.... I took on a value in
their reassured eyes, I became a somebody, and in the ardor of the first
moment they had the impression that they completely forgave me.

They were exultant. They sent a charming gown to my lodgings and
apprised me that a big dinner was being arranged to give my future
husband the chance to become acquainted. In spite of my repugnance I was
caught in the cog-wheels. The joy of seeing my mother again made me pass
over everything indulgently.

It was she who ruined the whole business. Could I not see her disdainful
attitude towards a man's poverty, her terrorized submission to the
world's judgment? "You know, you are supposed to be coming back from
England, we have even given details, don't contradict us...." And the
quasi-respect with which she encompassed me because of the authority
with which marriage crowns a daughter!

There certainly was enough to frighten one. Their rejoicing smelled of
revenge. What stifling quality, I wonder, can marriage have? What
oppression, what defeats, what chains await me? Am I going to prison?

But when I turn towards _him_ and bathe my sight in the serene waters of
his eyes, I recover my assurance and soar with him again. For them, it
is clear, marriage is an irrevocable finality, a tight ring, the
oppression of that wild, free instinct which you breathe out with your
breath. To us marriage is only a word.

Throughout the dinner time stood still, each second stagnated and told
a lie. And something indefinably foul and poisonous rose from their
attitude. Sometimes I felt as if I had never quitted this hypocritical
spot and this gilded furniture. I held aloof from him in apparent
indifference, but really to save our innocent love from their profane
eyes.

They left us alone for a moment, and that moment is the one thing in the
whole evening of which I retain a clear picture although scarcely a week
has passed since then. In saying we were alone I am not quite accurate.
A law forbade that young people should be left alone together for a
single instant. My sister and her big boy of a fiancé were near us; we
were not quite sure which couple had been put in custody of the other.

With arms fondly entwined about each other's waists they began to kiss
and hug. She held up her lips and uncoiled the serpent of her body
tantalizingly. When they were a little tired and their mouths blown, I
heard a panting sentence which ended with: "You will love me always?"
"Of course, always," he murmured in her ear.

I blushed. Not from offended modesty, but he and I--we had never dreamed
of such vows. They seemed silly to me. How can one swear to love forever
and say to a man: "Unto all eternity I shall be the most beautiful, the
only one in your heart"? _Always_, _forever_, words which life at every
turn refutes, how is it that a live heart would not give them the lie?

I must have looked a little haggard. My sister turning round saw that
we sat apart with a gloomy, distant manner. The same thought was in his
mind.

"Aren't they cold for lovers?..." By way of reply to her own question,
she kissed her fiancé.


X

After fingering the deposit the old pot-bellied concierge livened up.
"Money from lovers isn't mere money, it means good luck."

When he came back unexpectedly and with a paternal burr in his voice
offered us "a little candle-end to take the measurements with; so often
the ladies and gentlemen forget," it was chiefly to surprise us in an
embrace, or some laughing dispute interlarded with kisses.

The apartment of three adjoining rooms like three cells in a honeycomb
is very nice. It must be bright in summer, the stairs are kept clean,
the courtyard is cool and fresh with its green lane of flower-pots. Our
windows look right out on the top of the tree. A mighty rare thing, a
tree in Paris. Spring mornings we shall be awakened by a fusillade of
bird songs.

So this is where we shall live. These rooms, in which the atmosphere
seems low and cramped and the floor is all splintered, are to serve us
as domain and empire; these walls are to be our horizon.

When I was a child and lay tucked in bed, I used to dream of "being
grown up...." Then when I was fifteen I'd say to myself "later on" so as
to hear another troubling, forbidden word echo in my ears. And now my
confused dreams are come to attend me here.... So here is the end of the
story; it is all here, the mirage.

Only yesterday the sole reason for the existence of this place was a
jaundiced, weather-beaten sign on the street.... And now our double life
has found its temple, chosen its setting, and fixed upon its rallying
point.

       *       *       *       *       *

So this is the place we shall call "home." When the rain beats down out
of doors and a wrecking wind blows, this will be our unchanging harbor.
Whenever we make a new friend and we have told him everything and there
are still more things to tell, we shall welcome him across this
threshold and within these walls and let him see our ultimate selves.
And when the golden May daylight rouses you from bed and sends you
running to the window to feel its radiant stroke on your cheek and vague
longings take possession of you, it will be the fastenings of this
window which will turn to let in the breath of the dawn.

The little dining-room seems somewhat less desolate than the other wan
rooms. The ceiling still bears the mark of the hanging-lamp as a sign of
where the kindly light came from; a border of red arabesques runs round
the top of the walls, and the fireplace of russet imitation marble with
its pitted traces from invisible fingers of flame makes you feel as
though the grate were still warm.

The kitchen is so tiny and so like a toy that there's not a thing in it,
not even an old knife left behind through oversight. In spite of the
floor with tiles missing like teeth from a mouth, the sink with dried-up
pores, the stove downy with rust, it is the one room that doesn't seem
to be crying for help. It needs only a glimmer in the stove and savory
smells to give it life.

       *       *       *       *       *

This is the moment to look life in the face--the real life, not the one
people talk about. Until now our love has rested merely upon a
foundation of clay. It has been facile, scarcely tangible. I perceive it
is a love to be.

Now our love must be confronted with its kingdom, must have its
boundaries and landmarks fixed, must be asked to shine in truth and be
forced to the test. Let our love speak and inspire us. Later, when we
shall have furniture around us, like words already spoken, we shall be
less at ease.

"If you like, this shall be your room. It suits you. The neutral paper
makes it restful for thinking, and the recess is all ready for a couch.
Look, it's waiting for you. I will take the other room because of the
clothes-closet, and I'll enjoy leaning out across the white window-sill
for the fresh air.

"We shall visit each other. We shall be free and easy. You will come
and go and receive your friends, do as you please, without ever having
to account to me.

"But we are going to suffer, perhaps, in order to remain content and
preserve the multitude of joys that one experiences when alone?

"This dividing wall is nothing more, after all, than a thin membrane
through which the presence in the next room will ooze. When you are
surrounded by your friends in the lively hum and buzz of comradely
conversation, they will suddenly notice the shadow of an intruder moving
as a woman moves. In the bottom of their hearts they will have us much
married, you and me--the marriage of a friend is a little like a
theft--and without your suspecting it, at that very moment, in the very
midst of their talk, they will leave you.

"Do you really believe we shall be happy? I, for my part, would not like
your friends to desert you. It seems unfair that you should be loved the
less because of love. Are you quite sure that one has the right to
impose one's unalloyed hope upon a person for a lifetime? Are you sure
that in the name of love the person one has chosen can remain the best
of all persons?... Tell me, are you sure you will not bear me a grudge?

"And can the most beautiful union _remain_ beautiful? For we are about
to sign a pact. There's no denying it. What's to be done about this
transport that we are, this constant expectation, this clinging
intoxication?

"You know we shall have only each other intimately. Even inanimate
things will exert a tendency to influence us. When the little lodging
will take on our mould and there will be chairs to hold out our habits
to us and a brown pulsating clock, creature of even utterance and
over-sensitive soul, the fond familiar place will weigh and impose
itself upon us.

"So the host of wishes, the magnificent secrets, the kernel of sadness,
the nomadic hopes must all be made to enter by this door into our
associated days? Tell me, how is one to act? Must happiness, _true_
happiness without law or bridle, also be shut up here, here and nowhere
else? And must happiness be the same for the two of us who are
different?

"There's a children's fairy tale that once there was a princess whose
heavily embroidered robe was by a magic command made to pass through a
ring.

"Lovers betrothed think they understand love. But they have not lived
together--and _every day_. They don't know what that means. Those who
love as in books do not contemplate a long journey when they set out
together, and if the short-lived blaze vanishes at the first turning in
the road, it is not a great misfortune. Another spark will do for
another kindling. And there are those who _renounce_, abdicate their own
selves, bend the knee, and trust to love.... But how are those to act
who are not cut in heroic marble, who do not want to lie or renounce,
who don't pity the _other_ one, who are not afraid of themselves, who
love as people love in actual life, who are like us? Perhaps you know
better than I do. You are a man and older than I am, but I--I ask
myself....

"I was ready, as women are, for great impossible things. I never thought
about them very clearly, but I felt my emotions pierce me like dagger
thrusts. They inspired me with an all-powerful spirit, and if I had had
to batter down mountains, or dash through a river of fire, or die in
your stead, I should have closed my eyes and done it at one go.

"And behold the test. The test is here. Why is it that the thing one
awaits and expects never is the actual test? The actual test has only a
sorry way about it, a commonplace aspect, a very reduced compass; it
holds nothing but monotonous moments jogging along one after the other;
it stops just at the foreshortened shadow at your feet, and my arms
which I was about to open are, you see, arms of lead.

"Before I entered these rooms love looked like you and the future shone
like a festival just beginning. What is left of all that? I no longer
hear the chimes of golden promises ringing in my ears. I no longer feel
the hosannas of my heart, and it's as though I scarcely saw you in the
gloomy corner where you are standing."

I see the little dwelling where the hesitant evening has not yet taken
its place. The silence is laid bare, life is showing us her skeleton;
through the mottled panes one sees that the hour has red eyes and the
walls confronting us in their inflexible truthfulness have become our
four upright witnesses.

I feel like running away.


XI

When everybody was assigned a seat in the carriages, whips cracked and
the procession got under way.

The carriage at the head in a splash of sunshine drew the whole line
after it, shattering the massive silence of the street. The occupants
were still settling themselves, the ladies with a great rustling of silk
and a vast deal of twisting and turning before they got themselves
comfortably installed, while the men were obliged to sit forward on the
edge of the seats and be very careful of the disposition of their legs.

"Lovely weather," said one of the two ladies, "they're lucky." No one
answered. They held themselves in abeyance for the usual conviviality to
come later, and passed the time looking through the lowered windows at
the unknown quarter through which the procession was winding, where the
houses sank upon each other and the people in workaday clothes stood
still to stare with eyes of envy.

The second carriage had set off at a rapid pace; the coachman was
holding in his frisky pair.

"Say what you like, she's a beautiful bride."

Like most very old ladies, this one suggested widowhood. Even in talking
she exhaled the attenuated sadness that invests old people with a
protective halo.

"Oh, she's just like the rest. What's in her favor is that she's fair. A
brunette bride always makes you think of a fly in milk. At least, that's
my opinion...."

That was a good start. One remark led to another; the conversation
livened up. The ladies in their silk gowns felt conscious of sharing in
pomp and an important ceremony.

"I was told she ran away from home last year, with...."

The carriage jolted and zigzagged, but the group sat undisturbed. Each
felt drawn to the other three by a decidedly increasing sympathy.

What spirit haunted these carriages? All these people were held by an
obsession. They had seen the bride in her starry whiteness and
persistently retained an image with a halo round it. The bride was the
sole topic.

"I don't approve of a double standard," said another lady. "They did a
tremendous amount for her sister's wedding; you know they did, while
they're not doing a thing for this poor child." A shrug of the
shoulders. "I don't think it's fair."

Everything she said came out with a ripple in it from the unevenness of
the paving. Her neighbor was plunged in dreams, unaware. A day triumphal
arose out of the distant past when she too walked in white.
"Twenty-seven years like one month! How time does fly!"

They warmed up to their subject.

"She is making a very bad match: he hasn't a cent...."

"You forget she's well over twenty-two. A girl has got to take a husband
when she finds one. Husbands don't grow in the front-yard."

The perspiration came out in beads on their fleshy foreheads. A stop.
What had happened? A block? An accident? Plumed hats were stuck out of
carriage doors. "Get in again, madam, you can't see anything. You'll
break your aigrette. If I tell you...."

The procession shortened like a snake drawing in its coils.

"Ha, ha! I know someone who will not find it dull to-night!"

Their laughter took on a sharper edge; smiles lurked in the corners of
their mouths just deep enough to show that they understood, that they
had their own recollections and at the same time were in well-bred
company.... This lady with the air of knowing a thing or two....
What?... Without waiting to be importuned, she drew herself up
heroically and whispered something over the frilled hat of the little
girl beside her. They threw themselves back beaming, stuffed full.
"Impossible!"

Boots creaked, gowns rustled. The carriages began to clatter through the
streets again.

The laughter of young people. Not very loud. Hiding something sweet and
indefinably solemn. She was only fourteen. She had nothing but her thin
little feelings, which, however, kept her straight and haughty as an
Infanta. By leaning over slightly she succeeded in seeing the bride. The
bride ... the white word flitted about her like a light ball.... But
straightway she saw the bride her eyes fell. The same emotion had
surprised her on Sunday at mass when she saw the host rise in a beam of
light, and also when she listened to the hand-organ grind out arias.
Ecstasy leapt within her and hope sang: "Me too some day...."

       *       *       *       *       *

The last carriage kept behind; a low coupé with drawn shades. A stiffly
wired bouquet shed its fragrance within. As it sped rapidly by, heads
turned around for a long look and for the sake of the virginal memory it
left behind.

       *       *       *       *       *

I was in that last speeding carriage. I had obeyed my mother's
entreaties, I had agreed to figure in this masquerade.

So as not to rumple my fairy dress I forced myself not to make a
movement but to remain impassive and avoid the least little stir. It was
my rôle to receive the host of looks converging upon me as if levelled
at a target, hard and fast, crowding, curious. I confess that beneath my
snowy veil and sanctified air I lent myself to the situation with a bit
of vanity.

It takes me a long time to undress. My bridal costume is fastened by a
thousand hidden snaps and pins. I have trouble in getting out of it.

My room frightens me. "Take possession of us," say the chairs and
tables. "Act, command, try your hand, you are in your own home, it is
your life which is arising, we are watching you. What are you going to
do?"

The more the furniture goads, the heavier the languor that settles upon
me, the less I know, the less I advance. In vain I summon to my aid
ideas from without; none takes hold. I repeat, for example, that this is
the test of both of us, the beginning of our union. I fancy myself
clutching at resolutions, but they fall back at my approach and sink
routed into the folds of the curtains. Is it really necessary to
struggle? Wouldn't it be better to put my head in my hands and drop into
the softness and restfulness of my new armchair?

       *       *       *       *       *

When we came here a little while ago, it was _he_ who was the first to
experience this sort of trouble. We had been looking over our home and
when the tour was ended he took me in his arms, and I felt the warm
flesh of his kiss under my chin. A blow seemed to strike my bowels. I
tightened up into a ball, my muscles tense, thrown on the defensive. An
evil fear made me shiver. He raised his head. I had never seen him look
so tragic. His features were hardened, his eyes swimming ... I fell away
from him like a flower snapped from its stem.

A sudden instinct sent me to the looking-glass, as if it held an answer
to everything. Maybe looking-glasses do offer the eternal answer to the
riddle of the universe.

I had said to myself: "You will be close to him, you two will be alone
together, perhaps it will be beyond human power to try to be happy." I
used to fancy life as a struggle, a piece of work to be done, a
masterpiece, and imagined what my acts would be--all voluntary and
making for perfection. I forgot that they would have to be performed by
these arms with their warm flesh.

I had thought: "He knows me through and through, I have made him read
everything." But no, he knows nothing. He does not know the lovely shape
of my breasts, the lyre of my hips, the curves of my legs, nor this
unknown body the expression of which is so changing that it is like some
murmured tale which the light embraces and tells aloud.

It remains for me to bestow a final confidence upon him; that of the
body unveiling itself, _daring_ to confess itself. Is this not the
purest confidence? But let it not come before its own hour, for it must
lead to a moment of truth so naked and so unexpected that it frightens
me a little.

It is strange: this evening I live with the whole of my body for the
first time. I exist wherever it is. Even as I stand here fixed and tense
in front of the glass, I follow a line which may arch, swell and melt
away and which already bears the shape of love.

I can imagine everything ... for there's no need of having loved in
order to be a lover. All I should have to do, if I dared, would be to
twine my arms around his neck, press him hard, and harder still, and the
moment would come when I should forget the modesty of my single life.

And without knowing any more one would be lost, distraught, acquiescent,
lulled to sleep even to the soul, more beautiful than one is beautiful.

I can go still further, for the flesh that clasps cannot be deceived.
When the man and the woman are united, it is the woman subdued, armed
with her weakness, who becomes the stronger. I am sure of it already. In
the depths of my ignorant flesh, I already feel domination germinating.
It is not I; it is a law older than I that is seeking to fulfill itself.

And suddenly I am frightened....

But I am mad.... Man, woman, nothing but two words, which are not of the
stuff of life. Is there a single emotion in which I recognize myself?
Truth? But it is the truth of others. The truth that reaches you is
always different. Isn't it senseless to dread what depends upon
yourself? Are we strangers that I should hesitate like this to run to
him? Isn't he on the other side of the door, he of whom my body is
_thinking_? Isn't it enough for us to look upon each other? Is there a
single question he cannot understand? One seeks happiness. It is all so
simple....

Ah, let us go astray every day, let us deceive ourselves, let us suffer
alongside our own hearts, let us try to clasp the invisible! But this
evening there is nothing but a thin partition between my secret and
myself. I feel my heart throbbing as if it were laid bare. I am
beautiful, I am alive....

Am I not right?...



BOOK II

_BEING_



I


It is her eyes in particular. Ever since her eyes have made a part of my
life, I have known what nostalgia for Brittany means, and the infinite
mournfulness with which it permeates a human being.

She is like the rest of her race, short-legged, round, thick-set, and
her gestures conceal rather than reveal her hands. She talks in a
singsong and ends with a sigh. Her name is Marie, as though she were a
little nurse-maid of eighteen at thirty francs a month. Oh, it's not the
room she takes up. But for her blue-thistle gaze and the plaint of her
body, you'd scarcely know she was there.

       *       *       *       *       *

Seven o'clock. I am already on the street with bent head, insensible to
the allurements of the shops, driven blindly on with cheeks inflamed by
the wind.

The great porte-cochère, the steps three at a time, two pulls at the
bell, long, breathless minutes; finally the door opens, cautiously.
Marie behind the door squeezes herself up on tiptoe against the wall to
let me pass.

It is almost a sacrilege to speak in a raised voice as I do and bring in
so much of the outside air. "Is dinner ready, Marie, is everything
ready?" Since Marie never answers, I go straight into the kitchen.
Goodness, nothing done. Well, I'll have to get at the supper myself.
There's still a good half-hour left, I believe.

As I hastily remove my wraps, I feel the dull pang that assails you at
the sight of disorder.

There, I have the water boiling now and the cooking is well under way. I
didn't know I was so quick and capable. After all, Marie's only a child.

Marie bustles about. I see her two reddish, porous, spatulate hands
pounce on things, I hear the clash of utensils. Her person becomes many
persons, she jostles me, moves hither and thither like a distracted
tortoise, bends almost double to pick up a strainer.... To be sure the
kitchen _is_ tiny.

I speak to her as one speaks to a child. "Do you understand me, Marie?
Don't be afraid, I am not unkind." The lifeless fixity of her face
suddenly comes undone, her features contract. Marie was dulled by the
monotonous gloom of an asylum in a distant quarter of the city. She
slightly raises the heavenly blue of her eyes without fastening them on
anything. I see her tenacious hatred wake up and stir. A single flash.
Then her red-rimmed eyes flutter and fall; she is in order again, in the
vague sort of order characteristic of things inaccessible and forlorn.

I realize she cannot understand me. To her I mean constraint, uprooting,
exile, that unusualness which throws simple people out of their orbits.
And though she has never been accustomed to anything else than
maltreatment, neglect, and beatings, I understand.... I try to be
gentler, to smile when I turn toward her, for in the end visible
kindness should make itself seen.... And it would be so good to reclaim
this nature, to explain everything to her, beginning at the beginning.

I recall the scene of yesterday evening. We were at table. She brought
in the smoking soup-tureen at arm's length. Her heavy tread rolled like
a cannon-ball upon our delight in being together, then she retreated to
the kitchen like a dog slinking to its kennel. A crash of china. I
jumped up.

"Something broken?"

"No, madam."

"But, Marie...."

"No, madam, no, madam...."

I was close beside her and this time looked deep into her eyes. I saw
the freckles on her white skin, and there emanated from her the amazing
innocence of an accused child. Her voice came from her palpitating
throat with a quiver in it.

"No, no, no."

Poor Marie. I felt remorseful. "I beg your pardon, Marie, we were
mistaken."

Nevertheless I didn't budge, as if I were at length going to learn why
one human being can be so terrorized by another.... She too stood
motionless. I did not notice that her attitude was rather peculiar. I
put my hand on her shoulders. "My little Marie...." At this she
staggered and trod heavily on breaking china. Her face was imploring....

Hidden under her bell-shaped Breton petticoat which touched the floor
lay my pretty gray china cup shivered to bits.

She behaved the way girls brought up by Sisters always do. She crouched
against the wall, her forehead hidden in the crook of her arm. Her bosom
as pinched as a wasp's went up and down precipitately, and the tears
began to flow.

I stopped gathering up the pieces to console her gently.

"It's not your fault, Marie ... come, don't cry, don't cry."

       *       *       *       *       *

Marie close by is bending over the sink rubbing it with a brush round
and round always on the same spot. The water slaps on the tile floor and
squirts over my dress. Her movements have something eternal about them
and the appearance of never-ending complaint.

There is nothing to say. Whatever I do, she remains dumb, and the more I
try to reach her, the more she avoids me.

       *       *       *       *       *

But what does Marie matter? I force myself to get back to my own
affairs. And quickly. _He_ will come in, there will be his gaiety, the
joy flashing in our voices, the day's doings to tell of, and our dear
union only a fortnight old....

Marie is there; nothing can efface her. My irritation against her boils
up, then turns against myself. It is not pity I feel but rather an
intolerable impotence. I hurl myself with all my force against the
eclipsed expression of the Breton girl, and each time it hurts.

Marie....

And I used to think that to love was to feel yourselves alone. On the
contrary, it is to feel yourself to be many.

No, no, love is not the emotion of two people. No, as soon as one feels
love one wants to love _everyone_, win over everyone, shine on everyone,
even on this ignorant head. What sin have I committed that a single
welcome should be denied me? She does not smile; that's my fault. What
is lacking in my love that I should face the vexation of a culpable
failure? My pity for Marie and my love for him are one, because I have
only one heart. And since my heart is repulsed, is it impure?

Marie has resumed her feeble, beaten-down existence. She has set aside
the brush, her blue eyes look beyond the walls, she wipes her wet hands
on her apron--her hostile hands, which are peculiarly hers.

What can one do? But there must be _something_ she believes in, there
must be something one can do to move her, there must be some word to say
to uncover the tomb of her heart.

I stopped. For a moment I left my work....

Where find the ultimate words of love, the final words--simple and
difficult--when one does not even know the word to make one poor
inferior Marie blossom out?


II

When I am old I shall warm myself at the rich shining vision of the
first days of my love. I shall hold out the dry sticks of my arms. I
shall beg for a little fire, a little sap. I shall return to the present
with feebly beating heart and faltering step.

Poor withered old woman, you do not remember; and others will bestow
upon you the charity of showing you a picture of lovers. You see us as
we, wife and husband, used to embrace, how I leapt to his side, how his
mouth clung to the fruits of my cheeks, and how we laughed a matchless
laughter. Well, that is enough for you, return to your winter, to the
virgin plain of your old age, to your years perched precipitously over
death.

Am I the first by any chance to hide the truth from you?

The truth of to-day has no brilliance or halo. My joy in being a young
bride is not at all what I used to fancy it would be.

The dominant motive of my life at present, its great preoccupation, is
by no means to invent new words of love. It is to give battle to the
existence that one buys--buys with pennies and infinite pains.

We are poor. As we each earn our own living, we have decided that I
shall manage the budget for both. It is my job to concoct the meals; and
they must be wholesome, pleasing to the eye, intelligently planned,
tasty. The house must be bright, beautiful, convenient, cozy, stamped
with an air of prosperity. Time has to be economized, a ceaseless
tyranny must be exercised over things, nothing may be neglected, order
must be adhered to slavishly, hygienic principles followed vigilantly.
And lastly, all these things, which are everything, must be accomplished
successfully, and so successfully that once caught and conquered they
will come easily.

If only I had the money with which to fare forth to battle, it might be
easy, but the sum at my disposal is about enough for a doll's budget.
You could hold it on the tip of a knife; it is inexorably minute.

Besides, girl that I am, I do not possess overly much of that courageous
ingenuity and imagination which go so far, nor of the determination
which clenches its fists and stares a sombre defiance.

Love? Why does one never foresee that there will be accounts and money
cares, so important and so tormenting, and at the very start? Why
doesn't one know that these things take precedence over love, over
everything in daily life?

You have to get up to do the marketing an hour earlier than you're used
to. You have to learn to sew because a new dress and the joy of
pleasing him are a wish of love, but also represent a sum of money.

At the time I did not know it, but it was an immense triumph that he was
comfortable and happy when he returned home. There was the delight his
surprise gave me when, with great pride, I produced some jolly-looking
fruit for dessert. And see--there was the modest glory of having been
able to buy the lovely flowers for his room with my own coppers.

As a girl I walked towards love anticipating fiery words, forceful
looks, and two solemn presences.... I used to say to myself: Love!...

And behold, by way of humble events and simple tasks I have found the
affirmation of love.


III

We were sleeping side by side, our breathing intermingled; and nothing
was sweeter than this nearness of our slumber.

He put out the lamp and stretched himself beside me, and we remained
like that, silent, drowned in sweetness and the night. It was a living
impression of repose.

Beside his close warmth a torpidity brooded, for the days were
exhausting, and while he raised himself slowly on his elbow to lull me
to sleep with his eyes, I broke away in spite of myself from the
beneficent clasp and fell asleep like a child.

But last night, although nearly midnight, sleep was slow in coming. He
kissed my lips. Suddenly a strange will broke in me.... What instinct
was I obeying?... Then a violent repulsion. I knitted my brows. Ah, I
detested him....

       *       *       *       *       *

That night it was I who wide-eyed and curious watched him fall asleep.


IV

There was one second above all....

If I had had the time to think, I should have thought that this second
was worth the whole of life, the whole of death, and even more than
life.


V

The nights are links in a chain. Previously life consisted of day and
night; white, black; black, white. Since then life goes on unbrokenly.


VI

This morning when I caught a reflection of myself in the shop windows, I
noticed I had a strange air of authority, a self-assurance quite new and
indefinable, a manner crisper, more clear-cut. When I purchased my
provisions I had the courage to haggle, and the market-women treated me
as an equal.

My firmness and decisiveness have made Marie reveal the pale ocean of
her eyes. A distance seems to have been set between us.


VII

They point to us, just stopping short of using their index fingers, as
an example of a happy couple. They speak enviously of our great good
fortune as if we were bound on an adventurous voyage on which you embark
only once in your life.

What do their "young couple," their "happy pair" mean? Do people really
imagine that you arrive at happiness so quickly and easily, and that to
be sent off _together_ into the steep mountain country, life is in
itself enough to make you find the fulness of life?

Happy!... When everything tends to estrange you, the opposite natures of
man and woman, their conflicting interests, their very physical
attraction for each other. Happy! When you realize that two beings,
however close they may be, are forever divided. When, no matter how free
you are, marriage forces you to restrain and prostrate yourself. When,
apart from your joint life, you have your own career to pursue. And
when, after the day's work is accomplished, come the night's kisses as
if to undo the good of the day's work--behold the body, the blood, the
lips of love--and you change from friends into lovers again.

To be sure, there are occasionally moments of blinding delight, and it
is sweet to lean on a shoulder and have a second in the duel of life and
be with a man who smiles and takes you in his arms.

But to be happy! To feel that your measure is filled, that you are
yourself and him.... Man and woman are above all enemies; you feel it at
every turn. And yet you tell yourself that at the heart of some
inaccessible firmament there does exist a sublime harmony and it _must_
be attained, even if the road to it is superhuman and your strength
fails. And this harmony and this road must be taken afresh every day, if
ever one approaches them, for a human being changes from day to day.

I am already somewhat stronger and simpler, and somewhat appeased, but
still we are not "happy" as yet.


VIII

It is true; she was sincere....

While talking she cast off her enormous furs and fiddled with her rings
in the unconscious wish to remove them. Her restless head was set high
on a neck encircled by pearls. Minus the litter of ornaments she would
have tempted you to hold your hand out to her.

The landscape, swallowed up in long gulps by the window of the
railway-coach, had a sombre fascination for her, because it was moving
almost as fast as her pain. You saw her shoulders gradually shrink
together and slowly draw down the beautiful column of flesh supporting
her head. Then you saw them raised helplessly to ask the eternal
question, "What shall I do?" And then you saw them in the characteristic
gesture of all sufferers--thrown back as if to toss off the pack of
unhappiness loaded on her back.

Her story burst and rose in precipitate bubbles. Her voice, at moments,
broke. The woman at her side remained perfectly calm, walled up in the
dull indifference accompanying the forties. At the jolting of the train
she merely shook her head--was she listening?--and turned toward the
flying window where her own story was passing.

Darkness would soon be falling. So I had an excuse for going to sleep,
and as soon as I shut my eyes the young woman took up her tale of woe
anew, twice, three times, ten times. The whole of her misery escaped
from under a mask of restraint.

"And listen, the other day...."

Did I need to hear what she was going to say?

At the end of one sentence I caught "my little girls." I could see her
little daughters--exactly alike, well-behaved, in airy frocks, two heads
with long, elastic curls, a twin step in walking--the sort of children
who are their parents all over again and invariably provoke the
question, "Whom does she look like--her father or her mother?" as if
you have to search into a child's origin.

I could see her husband too. Haven't all these women the same way of
saying "my husband"? I could see him short, bustling, jovial--really not
a bad sort--and with a chubby face, the only kind I could possibly match
up with the young woman's insipid face. Though she said nothing of a
garden, I imagined a very strait-laced one with rectilinear,
timidly-flowering walks, the sort of garden that is not cherished with
love. And I also saw the family in their home, a substantial white-stone
ornate building. I raised my eyes furtively. I must have got a poor view
of her when she came in an hour ago. Now she looked pretty. Her features
were regular, her color had heightened, her quivering mouth showed her
lips to the fullest, and her distressed hand, pushing back her hair,
disclosed a brow eloquent, smooth and flawless as ivory. Certain women
derive their entire beauty from the pathetic. She was one of them.

Her eyes turned from the scenery; I lowered my lids.

"He doesn't understand me any more ... it's all over ... I am nothing to
him ... still ... a love match...."

The scraps of her plaint were borne off by the wind, the engine snorted
more vigorously, and the last remnants went down with me in the roar of
a far-off, formidable lullaby.

I soon awoke. Still bemoaning her lot, with the same phrase, it seemed
to me, always at the same point. She went on with such bitter
persistence that in the end you couldn't help learning her story by
heart. I did at any rate. The two women kept looking at each
other--shadowy vis-à-vis--the younger one far from the other, far from
us, far from everything, rooted in her life, in her square garden, in
her thirty years. It was as if she were talking aloud for the first
time.

I listened. Each detail revealed a year, a corner of the house, an
important event. I felt a dull rage fermenting in me instead of the
timidity and compunction one usually experiences in trespassing upon
another's inmost recesses.

Why? Perhaps because I, a stranger, had not the power to interpose and
hold the secret of this trouble so as to remedy it.

Ah, I no longer need to listen nor need to know the man in order to feel
that he is right to lose himself in his business and be merely a good
father who sees in his wife nothing but the mother of his children and
shrugs his shoulders when she heaves with sighs.

The evening air was blowing in cooler through the upper half of the
window. We were entering a plain where the green of the meadows was
deepening into mauve. Two rows of trees, which had been a profile
against the sky when seen from afar, turned into a black curtain
suddenly drawn. Here and there houses stood out as though groping in the
dark--faces blotted out as soon as arisen--one field swallowed up the
next; the ragged line of a hedge came and went; an embankment followed,
its slope daubed with brown, unwholesome stains, its top dressed with
tufted grass and straggling bushes, which moved their arms like signals.

The young woman's brows were drawn. She was questioning the obscure
flickering stretch of space. I read the questions in her face: Why does
he merely graze her forehead when he comes back in the evening? Why does
he keep her out of everything? Why does he never feast on her presence
or heed her advice? How did he love her? She had been right a short
while before when she had said bitterly: "A little less than a
prostitute, a little more than a servant."

The woman was certainly suffering and calling upon a God who could not
answer. At night when the close jealous house is asleep, she undoubtedly
falls to her knees in secret and wrings her barren hands and invokes
misery, love, grief, as if the sacred words were for the whole world.
Thou, God whom she implores, Thou knowest well the reason of her
trouble, a simple reason, brutal, elementary. Why dost Thou let her hunt
for others?

I threw myself back because I both wanted and feared that my face might
betray me.

The Midi was beginning, the first olive trees were rounding off the
landscape, the night sky was already smiling in the rosy light of dawn.

       *       *       *       *       *

In our times no woman has the right to live under the shelter of a
man's labor. The woman who dares to accept such shelter should abdicate
and commit her dignity to the hands that are productive. She should
consent to her dethronement and take the condescending love that is fed
to the weaker without complaining.

Men begin--the women know it well--by adoring this weakness. "My wife,"
that piece of fragility, those useless days, those little arms which
don't know how to do anything, the jewels he brings home, the great
astonished eyes, the mincing steps, everything that is touching and
contrasts with the struggle of his existence. Then he comes to extract
pride from this relation. "It is I who protect, sustain, feed her. It is
I...." He mounts a few steps higher and sees her a little lower,
incapable, infantile, unequal to battle, unequal to his power. Each day
inevitably finds them a little farther apart, and she in approaching him
is bound to raise her eyes while he condescends. If his love lasts it
takes the very form of contempt, though neither is conscious of it.
Which is just and proper.

A woman supported by her husband has no right to protest. If she is not
_earning_ her living, she should have some work to do, should use her
arms, her idle strength, her health. Merely bringing children into the
world is not enough.

The fat lady starts up from her entrenchment of cushions. "We are almost
there. We must get ready."

Bags pulled open emit the animal odor of leather and give out nickel
glints as they are snapped shut again. Then the fire of the rings
disappears under the gloves. "We are there!" They are now quite free to
stare at me.

What a metamorphosis. She has resumed her former appearance of a lady.
She is scarcely pretty. In the glimmer of the night-lamp she seems
sharp-featured and masked by a ghastly pallor, as if the generous sun
had abjured her forever.

Each turn of the wheels brings us closer to the town. The young woman
drawing herself up reassumes her manner of a somebody. She is back in
her setting, already less unhappy because she is nearer her unhappiness.
She pulls out her watch. Five minutes still. Time enough to lean on
one's elbow and think sad thoughts pro tem, which come running like a
docile flock.

I put my hand up to my forehead to prevent her searching my eyes for the
fountain of compassion denied her. There is no compassion for her in me,
neither is there in the opal-tinted meadows, nor under the sapphire of
the sky. To find compassion she would have to reconstruct her life from
top to bottom. A fate such as hers lies outside the fate of humanity;
suffering such as hers is beside and apart from the suffering of
humanity. I say her fate has not made her suffer enough yet and the
woman does not deserve to live.

A woman who does nothing is fallen in the sight of love.

He and I are going to the country on our holiday. I have been thirsty
for its freshness....

The carriage is empty now. You feel the double pulse of the train as it
rolls between two slopes spitting out rings of smoke, pursued, you'd
think, by its own speed, travelling on, on, on....


IX

We've been here a week.

Strange days, without axis or prop or stay, passed as if outside of
something, as if you had been asked to step up to a door but not invited
inside. Nature is not easy to reach and penetrate.

We had longed to live in this spot conceiving it beforehand as an oasis
set in dew. And here it is under our feet with its earth which smells
good and its breezes which tinge our cheeks. For all our ardor and
assiduity nature preserves her mystery; she is an unresponsive mother
insensible to the clamor of her children. When we draw near, she stops
talking and either drops a veil or retires completely into seclusion.
"You would like to assay my movements, cull the delicate scent of the
grass blade by blade, meditate like this tree, follow the steps of the
peasants who are my only kith and kin, be a wave in space, unravel the
relations of things, and delude yourselves with my warmth. That is what
everybody wants. May your wish recoil on you. Do not try to reach me.
Do not turn your heads in my direction. Let the thrills and tremors of
your feelings pass between yourselves. I know you not."

In order to arrive at a mutual understanding with nature, one
undoubtedly must have more of the heart of a recluse, a body more
inclined earthward, a face of greater taciturnity. We are intruders.

It is only in the evening that you blend and fall into harmony with
everything. Night awaits you--you see--below the horizon, and we set out
to meet it.

We take each other's arms, I feel my joy preparing; he smiles at the
care I take to prevent his catching cold, and off we go, arm in arm,
tramping to the tune of a sounding tread like two comrades who once were
schoolmates.

The little nestling village lies far behind; at a gulp the turn in the
road swallows up the last hut. The landscape ahead is still variegated,
but as it draws gently nearer the colors wane, the ground flattens, the
features relax as in a face after a smile.

Silence.... Twilight within us is falling also. To admit it we watch the
surrounding dusk with swelling chests and quivering nostrils.

On the rising ground opposite a yellow point is kindled, another and
another, performing an unconscious duty--to usher in the night. And
night is now here. Close by, in the fields, she has already drowned the
olive-trees, which have no compact mass to offer in resistance, scarcely
even any outlines, defenseless, except for their hundred-year-old
trunks. Their life is a thing of quivering, silvery breezes, and when
the darkness comes slinking and whispering, a breath will lull their
gray-lined brows to sleep.

Along the embankment on either side of the road, trees--you can't tell
what sort of trees any more--make great human gestures, as if to give
warning of a drama about to begin. Instinctively we quicken our pace and
draw closer together. The rich blood runs lively in our veins. We share
a fleeting warmth.

And now noises spring up, noises that belong to night alone and are a
part of its peacefulness; mournful bayings, which echo throws back
faithfully from yon slope; the croaking of the frogs, which blight the
heart of the atmosphere; a human call now and then, direct and piercing,
and from the ground the metallic chirping of the crickets.

How at ease you feel, full of loving-kindness, and how sincere you are.
You have sins lurking in your flesh, crimes piled up in your brain, a
sombre mood inhabiting your heart. Everything can be confessed and laid
bare. The night is all-comprehending. Night-time is different from the
stiffly starched daytime with its color and form to distract man from
his intimate verity. You can venture upon the wildest thoughts, expand
to your uttermost limits, forget your own existence, and discard all
past gestures. They were all inadequate. You don't want to retain any of
them except the gesture you would make here--spread your arms while
walking and hold your hands open like two pure, empty chalices.

Complete blackness now. You can no longer distinguish between silence
and space, fear and the rustling; all things are merged in each other,
trees with trees, their masses with the slope, and the slope, deprived
of its contours, with the sky, which has come down to join the earth.
Everything is blended, obliterated. The very cypresses, during the
daytime a spear thrust at the azure, are also added to the darkness.

Beneath our eyes, tired from not seeing anything, the road kindly
extends its vaporous pallor. Except for the road no line to arrest the
impulse within, no perspective. The only clear things, our own figures.

We have never before entered such solitude together, nor ever before
been laid so bare to each other. It makes us walk slowly and solemnly,
as if we were passing beneath the eye of God.


       *       *       *       *       *

The idea of us as a couple. We. We two.

Must an idea, then, remain implanted in the hearts of human beings in
order to keep them upright? If I did not feel the pulsing of my love
constraining me to live, the night, with no reason to respect my spirit,
would stretch me out, I fancy, on any chance slope beneath the large
serenity.

But I am upheld. Every intake of fresh air gives a new thrill and a
youthful vigor to the idea in my heart, and I feel it mounting so
swiftly that I must run to keep up with it. So as to hold it fast for
my protection I rake together my loveliest recollections. Are my
loveliest recollections those of our nights in each other's arms, our
kisses, the storm that beat against our bodies?... No, they are not. As
I raise my eyes to where the firmament should be--if it still exists--I
find the blessed peacefulness which comes from his presence. The
sentiment that grips my heart when I feel myself taking part in his life
is lofty. It has something in it of respect, and trust, and pity; it is
hard to say just what. It spurs me to action, even to boldness, and it
raises around me a strong wall in which I am secure.

This is not a recollection; it is a bit of the future, and the future
alone is what you discover as you go forward into the infinite. At one
bound you mount to the summits of love. Love is the future magnetized by
the heart.

       *       *       *       *       *

He is there. His profile is massive in outline. He towers over the
sunken country, the clods crunch beneath his feet. I walk close beside
him. I ask for nothing. Maybe my only wish is that my footsteps should
make less noise and my shoulders take up less room.

But I have another wish. I know what it is. Although I love him with my
whole heart, I want to love him more. One does not attain to love once
for all; the heart can never be filled to the full. How far shall we go?
I can go on and on without stopping and outdistance the sources of the
night; my youth is inexhaustible, my feet will never weary. I want to
love him _more_.

Space heaves a deeper breath. She is traversed by currents, scoops of
darkness, aromatic whiffs. The perfume sweetens the lips; flowers must
be dotting this hedge. And suddenly space goes mad. A black wind swirls
down from the tree-tops and fills the nocturnal expanse with the
creaking of branches.

       *       *       *       *       *

Must we stop at the greatest moment, at the point where the road looks
supernatural, as though it possessed a density of its own and were
suspended in space?... I should have liked to walk further; one never
goes far enough. Must we really return to the stolid lamp and babbling
kisses?

       *       *       *       *       *

Not immediately. Let us prolong this great sombre moment. Let us stay
here where even time might come to a standstill. The trees droop lower
here, and in these tranquil meadows the spirit may play hide-and-seek.

       *       *       *       *       *

It is really unhappiness that makes you stop. I return from the night;
all I bring back is this strangled throat, a body like a tortoise-shell
covering a silent heart and blinded eyes.

If I emerge from myself, disconsolateness everywhere, spread all over
the world. The sleeping desert....

He is close beside me, but since he lives, he can do nothing for me. I
can do nothing for him. I used to think that in loving him I crowned
him. Love is not enough. This evening I saw his life rise from the
ground, distinct from love, _outside_ of mine; I saw his life, bared to
all the winds, isolated from everything, raise and satisfy itself. I see
that this is right.

His life is complete in itself, unique and important; his life is not
merely the image that inspires me, the voice that I evoke, the face I
love dearly. His life is an insuperable force, vivid, inviolable and
free, which my heart out of sheer love of him failed to recognize. I was
right a few minutes ago to want to blot myself out, because I ought not
to count. Beyond my limited, restricted presence, he has the whole of
infinity to breathe in.

Then where are the nights which are to enlighten me? Of him I know
nothing but my love, nothing except that by his very existence he
contradicts what I know of him. Who will tell me how far I must go and
to what I must attain? I have slept in his arms, I have lived side by
side with all his cares, and I have given myself up to him with a joy
like unto which there is nothing. All I have given is myself. And yet
more is necessary.

       *       *       *       *       *

And a great conviction rises up straight and strong and shines as if a
light had sprung from the midst of the meadows.

I am only a woman, I can think only spasmodically. I love as one weeps,
but there comes a day of which this is the night, on which your forehead
touches the profound truth. You feel the loving-kindness of your heart
aroused, and you oddly understand that the perfect union of man and
woman has never been part of the natural scheme of things, and in order
to be happy together it is not enough to love one another.

       *       *       *       *       *

Come. We may return. Press me close to you, if you will, closer still.
Don't let us talk.

I know why I am content: your arms, my all-powerful life, our firm
footsteps. I do not know why the slight shadow seems to have vanished:
to live, go forward, pierce the narrow track of the road with your clear
eyes for stars, follow a night one does not see....

And then, O God, in braving the heavens, to understand with love that
which transcends love.


X

I hesitate to go out on the street. I feel that people's eyes are drawn
to my figure. There's no use fooling myself. The little girls actually
point to me with furtive, vinegary glances, for they are more
ingenuously hypocritical than women. Their insistent gaze embarrasses
me.

Two long months to wait before the first cry of my child! If only I
carried nothing beside my child. I feel also an imprisoned love
developing which beats at the bars of its cage and chafes so that I
don't know how to distract it.

The layette is quite ready; swaddling-bands warm to the touch, chemises
like a doll's, caps which will never be of use; the equipment of a
marionette; linen as soft as lint, bibs round and puffy as cockades. I
have spread everything out in front of me, and each article as it passes
through my hands assumes a shadowy lifelikeness.

Two months before I shall really know whether I am to be like other
mothers, a brooding hen, with folded wings and in-turned heart,
passionate for my own children, cattish and carping in my attitude
toward other children. Two months before I shall know the secret force
of that wild love which, they say, springs up all at once.

I am being initiated however. The other women give me a hearty welcome;
they make the impression of crowding together to make room for me. A
real sisterhood? Or the imperceptible joy of seeing a rival temporarily
diminished? Under their escort I enter into the forbidden arcana. "What
do you feel? _I_----" They make me a target for their reminiscences.

Each shamelessly outdoes the other. From the quantity and finished
preciseness of the details narrated I infer that the story has been oft
told. The least loquacious are the mothers who "have had a lot of them."
These have nothing left but a vast, frequently refreshed memory in which
their life merges in a blur with the life they have so many times
carried beneath their hearts.

Which of them am I to believe? Many have broached the subject to me,
many have discussed it, none has told me the secret of being a mother,
the word that would reveal, the sign, flashing and disappearing, by
which the treasure awaiting me would shine from afar, which would _make
me understand_. I have heard them bemoan the misery of the months before
childbirth and the sufferings of childbirth itself. I have heard them
boast, with the reverence of fetich-worship, of the care they gave their
little ones. But here their maternity stops. I still do not know. I have
two months to wait.

I plunge my fingers into the milky mass of the little garments. "Do
you," I say to my husband, "see the head of your child underneath this
hood? Let us try to imagine...."

He smiles without answering, shaken in his flesh, so lucid and so well
prepared for his approaching fatherhood that I feel myself a hundred
leagues behind. He, at least, knows why he will love his child, why he
already loves it.

As for me, my vision is obscured by the disconcerting pictures drawn by
the other women. Perhaps also I am under the ancestral pressure exerted
by the long line of my foremothers. Why should I be different? What
quality would make me better?

The animal heaviness reasserts its rights. My body is an unwieldy sheath
overspread with sleepiness, ramified by thick blood, its cells given
over to contented, torpid well-being. My very heart is struck with
stupor.

To lie at full length, on my bed beneath the weight of my breasts of
rock, no longer to move or think, only to feel at momentary intervals a
light stirring, a caress, which gently turns on its self and folds its
wings.


XI

I scarcely dare to get up. She knew me in my slenderness of the previous
summer, when I took the torrid paths like a goat leaping dangerous
mountain tracks. It was from my brisk manner of ready, go! she told me,
that she could tell how warm our love was.

We were living in the same inn. The very first day I was struck by the
blooming youthfulness of this woman who so skilfully escaped the burden
of the forties and constantly trailed a lover, a lover with a vindictive
eye and bullish neck and forehead. Perhaps on close inspection you might
suspect the fine tracery of wrinkles on her transparent skin.
Nevertheless she shone resplendent as we younger women don't know how to
shine.

Black on white, a head surcharged with mystery and night, two jewels,
no, two green pools, a mouth that revealed the shape of a kiss better
than other mouths, a figure not very tall but with a race and suppleness
which lent dignity. Clothes planned to reveal the curves of her body.
Movements kindling I know not what lights. Woman, in short, with all a
woman has in her of the venomous and the childlike.

We sat directly opposite each other at table. The charm of her vivid
smile, glowing face, and darting movements turned the frugal meal for me
into a riotous feast.

One morning as I was starting out on a walk by myself for nowhere in
particular she came up to me in an easy spontaneous way, as if there
really did exist a sisterhood among women. Part of her loveliness was a
deep, maternal voice; in crystal tones she plunged into a surprising
eulogy of the relationship between my husband and me. She had noticed
us. How perfectly united we must be! "Married? Absurd!" She pouted. But
we had such a way of locking arms, and looking and waiting for each
other, also such a....

She went on talking and talking. I was rather bewildered.... Was it
really _us_ she was describing--sombre with passion, eagerly relishing a
concord that was pregnant with storms which might break suddenly from a
clear sky? Wasn't it more like her own love? I was at a loss how to
answer. Still I could not recognize ourselves. She clutched me and
laughingly declared I was a little savage, and my being a little savage
pleased her.

We came to where the country takes a sudden dip, so that to be visible
to the heavens it has to cling to the bronzed trunks of the
half-stripped cork-trees. We went on breasting the wind. I knitted my
brows. Everything she said breathed, at least to me, another age or
another sphere; it all hinged on love, was dedicated to love, and by
that very fact created a distance between us. I saw her cramped and
confined by the very thing that gave her so much vitality; I saw it was
her crucifixion. She was nothing but the instinct for love restricted to
the need of man. Nevertheless she attracted me.

We got to know each other better. She astonished me more and more.
Whether she and her lover carried on a squally conversation on the bench
in the hall or whether she wandered along the narrow, brambly paths in a
sort of ferocious abandon, or whether she came to me and threw her
thorny crown at my feet with a radiant gesture, she was Woman as men
have described her, as they have wanted her. She was the ancient bearer
of a fatal property, the creature who either subdues her opponent or is
subdued by him, and knows nothing else; the sorry creature of tears and
fascinations....

She never spoke of her life or of herself. We were two women, our lot
therefore was the same, she was in love, I was in love. What else need
one want?

"Good-bye for the present," she cried as the cart set off down the road
at a snail's pace. She stood with her head inclined tenderly sidewise
and her floating veil prolonging the farewell.... There was a bend in
the road. I thought that was to be my last view of her.

But a little while ago as I was going to lie down, an imperious ring
tore the silence. Actually she, her smile, her veil, her dress a tangle
of silver.

"What a pretty little nest! How comfortable you must be! Well, well.
Still happy?"

And then--there!--her laugh with a little savagery in it. She notices
that I am expecting a baby. "Well, of all things!" She throws her gloves
into the air, seats herself, gets up again, and from her hectic
restlessness I infer that she feels defrauded. My home is too cozy and
my manner too tranquil. Not, of course, that she wants to find me in
misfortune, but it's as though I have passed over into an enemy's camp.

She has come because she is in trouble. I do my best. I hold her hands
in mine and try to trace the ravages of grief on her faun face because
she keeps saying: "I'm so miserable." She must be suffering. But I
cannot get myself to be moved.

This is her story. Her lover has betrayed her, she is sure of it. In
tidying his drawers she found letters from a woman referring to a recent
rendezvous. She thought she'd die when she read them.... Still I am
unmoved. She warms up to her theme. At breakfast, then and there, a
terrible scene; they fly at each other.... Disgust seizes me.... To show
my interest and stimulate my pity, I ask some questions. "So you had an
explanation and could come to an understanding?" She snatches her hands
away and draws back. "Aren't you listening?"

To come to an understanding! That would be too easy. They rushed at each
other at the first pretext, each resorting to shifts and dodges and
keeping silent as to the real issue, though recognizing the other's
grievance. "He beat me."

She closes her beautiful victimized eyes. She has displayed the seven
wounds of her heart; and the least she expects is the shelter of my
breast and the succor of my arms....

"But it would be so simple to tell each other the truth and try to
understand each other...."

She keeps her flexible panther-like body from bounding up. "The truth!
what truth? Do you think love is so simple? He has deceived me. That's
the only truth I need to know." She gives herself up to tears, and her
clear eyes turn into two bloodshot orbs.

Should I tell her that I am insensible to such despair, and her love is
merely a mistake proceeding from books, it really isn't love? Should I
tell her that love is logical and simple at bottom, and is less in its
transports than in the gentleness it conveys? Should I tell her that men
like change more than women and for a man to snatch at a passing
temptation does not mean that he is trying to reach the love he prefers?
Should I?

She anticipates me. "I understand, I understand, you are not in love.
Poor little thing, you'll see when you love!" She sends her prophetic
look around the orderly room and the, to her, inconceivable quiet. What
polite excuse can she find for getting away quickly? She came a long way
to meet a real sister in love. We ought to have groaned together over
the common enemy who is also the common God; then she would have
departed in her honorable failure aided and reinforced for the eternal
contest.

Shall I let her leave like this? I have been able to secure a serenity
which she does not surmise; it would be a charity to beg her to try to
secure the same serenity. This woman ... I shall say to her: "A beloved
is neither a God nor an enemy, he is a friend you must discover in spite
of passion. I know it's hard and needs an iron will and devotion, but I
swear one succeeds...."

       *       *       *       *       *

She raises the window-shade. Her face stands out--is it the
same?--marred by the light.

The borders of her green eyes show the streaky after-effects of tears,
her cheeks are lined, her lips have lost their blood and youthful red,
the two tendons of her lovely marble neck twitch, and the cherished body
in its holiday attire collapses like a broken toy.

I approach her, holding out in my comradely arms the new spirit that
will blossom on the new earth. I am not the only one; other young women
would speak as I do. The love by which we live is not like the love the
others die of.

       *       *       *       *       *

But when I come close to her she steps into the full light ... I give up
the idea of explaining myself. There is nothing to say. She is twenty
years older than we are.


XII

I have the feeling that I am not prepared; it is a sort of
embarrassment, an obscure terror, and when I get myself to say so to the
other women, they laugh and hush me up. "Don't worry. The knowledge
comes of itself. Just being a mother teaches you how to raise a child."

It was by chance that I came to this street. I was walking along. The
hospital. A dull flat smell surrounded the sordid building with a
leprous haze. The doorway was swallowing up a long line of women from
off the gray canyon of the street. I do not know what struck me--I
retraced my steps and followed the women in.

We were made to wait in a room heavy with a brew of musty drug smells.
Someone shut the door, and immediately there broke out a fearful hubbub,
a concert of human meowings, bawls, pipings. A panic nearly seized me.
With the dull patience of animals penned in together the women formed
into groups and filled out blank forms, rocking and bobbing the light
fragile bundles they each carried in their arms.

I went up to one of them, leaned over and looked upon the crumpled patch
of a little old red face. Then I realized I had come there to occupy
myself in my period of expectancy and catch a glimpse of my child in
advance.

The woman's face was bloodless, like the face of a drowned corpse, and
fanned by long colorless locks limp as seaweed. Seeing the supplication
in my eyes she lifted up the thick dirty-gray shawl with the air of a
benefactress. "Three months." The first thing they tell of a child is
its age.

The little worm very leisurely wrinkled its forehead of peeling satin
and stretched itself, opened two rather glassy eyes encircled by mauve,
and let out its guttural wail through a toothless aperture upholstered
with flesh. The provident mother had already pulled a rubber pacifier
out of her pocket, which transformed the wail into a monotonous greedy
gurgle. "Will you be quiet! They're an awful trouble. You'll see," she
declared, gauging my heavy figure. "I had bad luck, I had no milk. No
use giving him gravy or bread soaked and boiled. He doesn't get any good
out of them. If you think you can fatten them on the doctor's fine
words, as if the doctors even know what they're talking about!"

"I believe you!" bawled a big blonde. The baby which she had a
triumphant way of carrying had hanging cheeks and bottle-blue eyes in
button-hole slits. "Just look at mine. At nine months it ate like us.
What do you say to that, eh?"

A group gathered. "What are you here for then?" asked a huge creature
with a gray ogress head, high cheekbones and skin streaked with fine
veins. The blonde turned her baby over and showed its chubby flesh
covered with a crusty, scabby, red-streaked sheath. "Oh, only this."

The ogress dropped into an empty place on the bench and paraded her
darling on her knees. "My daughter's," she explained to the circle
around her. "Her third. Maybe you think she hasn't got something to
worry about--three babies and working in a factory. Babies--I know a
thing or two about babies. I've had eleven." There was a general stir of
compassion followed by protests. "I have two left." She danced the mite
on her knee. Her tower of a body swayed back and forth, through her
half-open jacket you could divine her dead breasts. There was something
weird and horrible in the dismal accustomedness of her knees.

"The doctors make you fuss such a lot. You give the babies too much, and
you don't give 'em enough, and you don't bathe 'em, and you don't weigh
'em. There wasn't such a lot of talk in my time, but they grew up all
the same. I said to my daughter, 'Look here, you let me alone, either I
know what to do or I don't know what to do.' I used to give mine
toast-water, that was all." She tucked up the lank pads of hair clinging
to either side of her face. "You boil two or three crusts of bread...."

"Oh, I know," interrupted the woman with the drowned-corpse face.

"Mine has bronchitis," went on the ogress. "I wonder where he caught it.
He never goes out and he sleeps close to the stove. I am going to try
and see if I can't get a bottle of syrup...."

The folding-doors opened, a white-clad nurse made a sign, and all rose,
each with the same enamored hugging-to-her of her wailing burden.

The crowd poured into an immense, well-heated room paved with white
flag-stones and painted white. The light beat down hard through a row of
bay-windows. At the far end presided a handsome old man in a white
smock, an immaculate nurse at his side. "The doctor!" whispered the
women in a tone of awed hostility. The man did indeed seem indifferent
and just as God should be.

Spread out symmetrically on the bare table in front of him among other
instruments was a complete apparatus of justice, bright and
glittering--a set of scales with a basket and a row of copper weights
drawing clamorous notes from the straggling music of the sunshine.

With remarkable dexterity the women undid the swaddling-clothes,
turning, tucking up, unwrapping. The blonde swelled out her bosom as she
stuck it full of pins; the ogress held her pins between her teeth. A
suffocating odor of warm wool, sour milk, perspiration, and stale flesh
arose amid the cries.

The line began to move. One after the other they went up tendering their
children like poor plucked bruised flowers, with the idolatrous,
skulking faith of believers approaching God.

From my bench, my heart frightfully wrung, I saw each showing me what I
might make of my child ... a baby with its neck seamed with a reddish
crack ... a baby with tiny, tiny limbs beneath an abdomen swelling like
a bagpipe ... a baby whose ribs striped its body like a zebra's hide ...
a baby with a back all covered with boils....

"He has green movements." "He has a swollen stomach." "He has ringworm."
"He coughs." And the same slack answers to the doctor's questions: "I
don't know.--I don't know.--I don't know."

The man cast his sovereign glance over the printed form held out to him,
handled the little body, remained impassive while pronouncing his rapid
decision, and took up the next case.

Among the lethargic flock who went away with bowed heads, some, to rally
their spirits, mumbled the flesh of their babies with fierce kisses as
if to take revenge and show that this man after all had done them
harm....

       *       *       *       *       *

I got up, dragging my double weight.

So this is the maternal infatuation which is so sanctified and revered.
"I don't know.--I don't know.--I don't know." And I presumptuously was
going to commit the same folly, I, who knew no better than they, who had
not learned the unknown love awaiting me....

Why doesn't that man, the doctor, who _knows_, arise and snatch away
these lives contaminated by the fond ignorance of the mothers, and
proclaim that the instinct is fallible, fatal, even criminal?

       *       *       *       *       *

Most of the women met me again under the porte-cochère, because I walked
with difficulty. The one with the drowned-corpse face gave me a friendly
little nod.

"You will see," her nod said, "it will soon be your turn...."

Yes, I know.... To be a mother.... In return for the gift of life, to
have the right of death over one's child. And to use that right.


XIII

A rending, moments repeated incessantly, torture indescribable, pain
embedded in the body, battle, cruel cries....

I remember everything and every second. I remember the seconds when I
gnawed at my bedclothes, when I howled like a wild beast. I remember all
of them and others. I remember that none of them was ever the last, how
the hours added themselves to the seconds in an excruciating, inhuman
succession of throes in which my whole being set furiously upon itself,
how I no longer had the strength to suffer.

I twisted my head from side to side like a dying animal in entreaty; I
stifled it in the pillows; it was wet with perspiration; I felt a new
convulsion begin and break like a wave. And when an infernal force tore
me with a pang greater than all the others, I heard vaguely a cry that
was no longer mine, a film passed over my pupils, I sank into an abyss
sunlit and sultry. It was over ... it was over ... I fell asleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

Did I remain in that state of lethargy and inertia for long? When I
opened my eyes the whiteness and blankness of the walls of my room
seemed to be released by a spring. About me was a startling silence
peopled with sibilant whispers. I saw women stooping, then disappearing
with their arms full of linen.

       *       *       *       *       *

My baby! My baby!

His father, exultant, held him out to me. I became fully conscious. But
goodness, how ugly he was! The shrivelled face of an old woman, the
profile of a vulture, a forehead covered with plushy mucosities, cheeks
smeared as with the yolk of an egg, hands on the outside exactly like a
bird's and on the inside creased and red. And real nails!

At the fontanelle the pulse beneath the skin throbbed terrifyingly, and
the fuzz on his skull was skimpier than pin-feathers on a fledgling.

I took him in my arms, stiff and long in his swaddling-clothes. His eyes
opened half way and showed a glassy violet with milky gleams.

Our child? We both in turn dropped timid solemn kisses on his downy
cheeks made of a sweet smell, and I dared not say anything.

       *       *       *       *       *

Well?... The call of the blood, the rejoicing of the flesh, the issue of
love, the instinct, the lurid mother-instinct at last?

No!


XIV

I should like to hold these things fast, for always.

I see them now as they really are, just as I see my son in his present
form. But it is not enough to say: "I see them." I have carefully
preserved all my pictures of him; I want to keep intact the memory of
the heart he gave me.

This is not difficult to tell. Other feelings are too bound up with self
for description. You'd have to explain a person's whole nature to
understand them. Love is indefinable, grief is indefinable, but a
mother's heart can open up like a book. It is uniform and simple, free
from all alloy, and its very infiniteness is like finiteness.

My little boy is near me, awkwardly assaying his first steps in the
garden. Without raising my eyes from my work I watch him and I thank
him.

It is he. Although he changes from day to day, I know his ways by heart:
the big curl in which the sunlight lies coiled, the almost imperceptible
arch of his eyebrows, mere shades of lines, the red pollen blown on the
petals of his cheeks, his profile of curves, his neck of
mother-of-pearl, the spreading fan of his fingers, his unique form which
is unique only to me.

I must rack my brain in order to force into my memory that once he lay
hidden in my warm womb and I carried him as though he were one of my
organs, as though he were a secret, that I carried him as one carries a
joy or a pain. I no longer remember this.

I am in a hurry for him to grow up and be able to listen; I should like
to talk to him. I have found words for the others, though they awoke in
me only an uncertain love and set my heart in chaos. He has given me an
intelligible emotion, and to him I have said nothing.

I love him as I love no one, because he is the sole human being for whom
I am _responsible_. My love is responsibility first and foremost. If he
bends over, I suppress a cry; if the sun shines too strong on him, I
shield him with my body; if he makes a new gesture, a slight disquiet
flits through me. In whatever concerns him danger seems to lurk. He is a
lively, approachable child, people like him, and when they come up and
speak to him, I smile a pleasant, natural smile, though his life and his
death keep up an incessant sport within me and incessantly it devolves
upon me to secure his life. It is a tragic stake, a terribly cruel
problem; it is the entire basis of mother-love.

       *       *       *       *       *

He has run as far as the ivy thicket, thirty yards from my chair. I
tremble so that I have to get up and leave my work. Every now and then
he comes tottering to present me with a shaving of wood fished up from
the sand he plays in, a big earth-coated pebble, treasure-troves of all
sorts. "Look, mother." His attention flatters me.

If I were to disappear without leaving anything?... Without leaving a
will? Or suppose that from beyond the tomb I were to say: "Before you
took your first steps your life was all arranged. In order that you
should be happy I kept you from having dignity or a sense of justice. No
need for you to undergo the bitter struggle that presses upon a man, the
primordial cares of existence, honesty--honor, in short. Are you not my
child? If I have taken trouble and pains it was to deprive human beings
all for your sake. You will be exempted from earning your bread and
pursuing an occupation. You will depend upon the labor of others, you
will be under the delusion that you are distinguished from those upon
whom you depend. That is the end to which my efforts will have served."
But this is wrong, unwholesome, dishonorable.

       *       *       *       *       *

When he is grown up into a tall young man whom people take notice of,
shall I have the courage to look him in the face and say:

"You are not everything to me: you never have been my whole passion. I
have cherished you on my knees, I have served you, I have idolized you.
I have never deceived myself. I knew perfectly that in loving a child
one gives without ever receiving. I have reserved the highest place for
others. It is not to you that I have dedicated the essential thing in my
life, its supreme reason, if a supreme reason can be found.

"Therefore you have the right to leave me. You must be finer, you must
repudiate me. I bow before what you are. I free you from the duty in
which children are cooped up, and I assume the duty myself. Whatever I
may have done, never let my course of life be an example to you; there
is no example; you, nothing but you, is what will count.

"You will have so much to do, everything I have failed to do. Go, keep
your face set forward, never turn back. What were you born for if not to
depart from me? To be sure, you are flesh of my flesh, but a part of my
flesh that is unlike me, a contrary current that has emanated from
me.... You say no to everything I am.

"Does it hurt me to see you disappear? Am I alarmed? Do I suffer? That
does not concern you. _I was forewarned_. On the day you were born I was
told that the tearing-away process would last as long as I last. We
leave each other each minute. Your head mounts upward towards the
heavens, mine draws closer to the earth.

"It is right and proper that this should be so. Without you, you know,
my existence would be justified. It was not merely to bring you into the
world that I was born. The thing is that your existence should be
justified.... No, do not delay. Life is nothing but a departure and
every time one halts one commits treason.

"I shall have to come to understand many things, thanks to you. I have
always tried to be clear and know myself, but when I went to the bottom
of things, I mean to the bottom of myself, there always remained
_another_ soul, a rebellious soul which refused to reveal its mystery,
and I have doubted whether it is humanly possible to learn the truth of
it.

"I was not mistaken. The real, unknown part of myself, my unreachable
soul, is in your eyes. You will see through what I have got no knowledge
of. If you beheld how I look at you! You are like the travellers who
come from afar, from the lands of fable concealed under lovely names of
gold. You resemble those travellers. Your eyes will see beyond the
horizon in which I go astray. I tell you that of the two of us the one
who ought to kneel, listen, and learn is not you.

"My little baby, I shall owe to you the sole love that is sorrowful and
perfect, the love that neither barters nor expects reward. Since I have
given everything, you will owe me nothing."

       *       *       *       *       *

Shall I have the courage to say this to him? It will be hard perhaps,
but already I find that it is a veritable grace from heaven to have
twenty years in which to attain to such courage.

       *       *       *       *       *

Here he is coming back, running this time and brandishing in his plump
hand a twig he has broken off all by himself. He drops plump on his
knees as on two round balls, all hampered in his clumsy race to me. His
chubby cheeks are stained with crimson. He throws himself on me.
"Mother," he lisps, the little flatterer....

The mournful moment of a kiss, the exasperating moment of an abortive
embrace, the fleeting moment of contact--he is gone.


XV

The test has been made.

We have lived side by side in the heart of the country, we have done the
humble things of daily life together, have shared its immediate
exigencies, have enjoyed the wild spirit of long walks together, the
redolent silence of the little wood, all the freedom written on the face
of the earth and carried by the waters. After this we shall feel that
the looks we exchange are sisterly, and I have the improbable hope of
some day being able to say: "I have found a woman friend."

Her very name seems wonderful. Eva....

I met her in the office where I work. What a lovely vision the first
day! You so rarely find strength blended with sweetness in a woman that
her bearing seemed a little supernatural. It was merely self-assurance,
however, and the majesty of perfect health that gave her her superb
manner of treading the waves. You noticed her tallness and fearless
vitality, and did not try to question her eyes for the secret being in
her. This was fully expressed by her quick gestures, the smile of her
frank lips, the fearless carriage of her head, the straightforward look
of her beautiful brown eyes.

A sort of reserve established a connection between us at first.

I noticed her diligence, her desire to do well, and a something like
heroism, which made her rush into the forefront of life and carry away a
little more than her share of the burden.

Our silent understanding lasted for some time. Perhaps without our
knowledge the intuition brooding in women brought us closer than words
could have done. One evening in speaking of her home and saying how
happily she looked forward to meeting her husband, she used a phrase so
tender, warm and chaste that I caught a glimpse of the woman in her. Her
face, always behind a mask of energy, turned gentle and serious as if
veiled by serenity. I imagined a couple in her image, for it is the
woman who makes or unmakes the couple. She must have achieved a deep
marriage.... The weather was fine and bright, and we left for home
together.

I think I shall always remember her pure voice, which revealed the
restlessness of living like a burning bush hidden behind strength and
youth.... I kept wishing we'd never reach the corner where we had to
separate.

But there it was already. The red of the sky threw its glow on her face
and spread an impalpable halo of dusty rays behind her. "Till
to-morrow," she said. I almost ran off, my heart swelling with
gratitude. I remember my eyes smarted.

That was several months ago. When we decided to spend our vacation
together, I felt beforehand that we were going to be friends.

We made the rash experiment of bringing two couples, two poor couples,
under the same poor roof. We did it and we were gay and happy in the
doing. It makes you believe in miracles.

I do believe in miracles. It is not a miracle that this beautiful woman
with the tanned cheeks walking beside me is the strongest attraction in
the landscape because of the tall stem of her body, the dancing refrain
of her steps, and the brilliance of her complexion. Other women have
passed over the ageless earth who were as alive, as charming, as
stirring. The miracle is that her brow is clear, her manner clean-cut,
her gaze straight and sure and keen with intelligence; that she goes
lovingly toward a love which she has built with her own hands; that she
is free and strives to be sincere in her freedom. Our mothers knew not.
The woman in us owes them nothing but our faults.

If you look at this woman carrying her will on her shoulders, leading
her will on towards the realization of her inner idea, towards the
simple desire to be brave, to love, to be truthful; if you see her
passing in nature, if you see how she moves, how she takes into her
being the keen sea-air and how aware she is of everything, the great
eucalyptus, its gray-green leaves tossing in the wind, the ochre-colored
slope checkered with vines, the sleepy languor of the lovely coast-line
robed in blue, you can tell at a glance that our humanity is strangely
new.

When she returns to her and her husband's orderly, flower-decked room,
what a life she will stir up; what creative power, what inspiration,
what harmony she will contribute to their relation.

       *       *       *       *       *

Will she and I succeed in producing that supreme masterpiece known as
friendship? Friendship between two women used to seem almost impossible
to me. I have always seen women leagued against man. They meet only to
connive, and when they meet, humanity divides into two camps with the
woman's camp almost wholly devoted to the concoction of plots and lies.
Two women together? Two enemies confronting each other. If they cease
from their rivalry, it is in order to set traps for male weakness.

       *       *       *       *       *

She turns round. "Quick, we ought to be back already." Her smile is so
confiding and my heart so happy, she is so radiant, so wholesome and her
presence is so forceful that some day, I say to myself, the name of
friendship will have to be the same as of love.


XVI

An arbor at the water's edge. Cool green leaves. Flowers. Boughs striped
with sunshine. Close by, the peacefulness of a sleepy stream.

We had decided to celebrate our second wedding anniversary here. We rose
early in the morning, set out arm in arm, keeping step, and came to
this springtime nook as if to a rendezvous arranged by spring itself.

The setting for our lunch was all it should be--the midday sun blazing
down upon the surrounding country, the table garlanded with flowers, the
scenery framed in the arch of the arbor.

Two years....

The afternoon passed tranquilly.

He was seated close beside me. I saw his profile against the bank and
the misty line where the horizon was falling asleep. His wandering gaze
was caught by everything and rested on nothing. He seemed to be summing
up each breath of nature, each line, each feature, and he had eyes
only--this being a day apart from other days--for the broad effects of
the great stretch of landscape.

A halt. We count on our fingers, we hold a mental roll-call before
turning back.... Presently, when we start on our homeward walk, the
great amphitheatre of vapors, the slope fringed with trees, the belt of
mist will each one by one be making their quivering signs.

       *       *       *       *       *

Two years. What has my love become, my hope, the spirit without end
which dwelt within me?... We are two, that is all.

The same current of the spirit--if not the same spirit--drives its waves
through us. The same flame--if not the same heart--mounts within us. The
same love of truth--if not the same truth--throws the light of day
between us. And nothing but silence is needed for us to be close and
united.

We love each other better than ever; we no longer talk to each other.

Had anyone said to me the first day of our marriage: "You will want to
explain everything to him, what you are, what you see, what you wish;
you will want to find out from him what he is, what he sees, what he
wishes; you will also want to find out what in both of you is
reconcilable and perhaps, above all, what is irreconcilable: this is his
concern or interest, this is your concern or interest," I should have
nodded my head. "Yes, exactly."

But if I had also been told: "A day will come when you will have nothing
more to learn of each other, nothing more to tell each other; without
mutual explanations you will understand everything," I should have
denied the possibility. I should have cried out that a whole century
wouldn't be enough to bring two human beings into harmony, because human
beings change from second to second. I should have said it was
blasphemy.

But the day did come.

There is a region of soft azure outlines where words have been
extinguished. _He_ exists and I exist.

It is a little green arbor where nothing, in short, binds us together,
neither the flaming leafage, nor the smell of invisible murmuring water,
nor the languishing hour; neither the nights past and gone, nor the days
to come, nor the little child asleep at home in his cradle. If anything
binds us together, it is the freedom that each of us has found, nothing
else.

       *       *       *       *       *

One must never say "This is love," for love is the heaven that the heart
has in prospect, and the whole of space is yet to be traversed.... It is
an immense feeling which speaks and impels you and is made up of
certainty and clearness.

I am sure of him.

He might see a weapon of crime in my hands--or at least some symbolic
weapon, something he holds a crime--without a shrug of his shoulders.
Remembering that my tenderness is unfailing, he would say to me "all
right," then he would come to me to find out why what I was doing was
right.

And he is sure of me. He could leave us, his hearth, his love, his
child, without so much as a glance back. I should merely say: "He had to
go, he must submit to our love, and go his own way. That is how we love
each other."

A moment at the foot of a hill, a great moment, so welcoming, so stable,
and so peaceful that it is like an open doorway before which you must
commune with yourself before entering. Two years gone by. Before me the
rest of my life.

       *       *       *       *       *

I have also had my doubts and fears. In the beginning I said to myself:
"Will life allow such a love? What will become of this ardor and
determination? And he, will he allow me to love him as my heart
dictates?"

We have gone through daily cares together, poverty, weariness, all the
formidable common things. We got many laughs and more strength out of
them. In the evening his step would sound on the dark landing; I would
run to the door to meet his smile; he would kiss me; the hours would
fly.... That is the way two years unrolled their seasons and brought
forth their fruits, and we became strict with each other because
perfection revealed her face to us from afar.

So, without a word said, by minutes added to minutes, by the divine
simplicity to which one approaches, you reach the promised land and the
very heart of love.

I say what I see. Life does allow all the ardor, all the sublimity of
two human beings to flourish; and in their relation to each other she
grants even the impossible. I say what he and I are.

       *       *       *       *       *

With one accord we rise, we know it is time. Our child is waiting for
us, our house, our to-morrows, a thousand impatient desires, and all the
things you don't think of in advance.

We follow the line of the bank. Where to? I do not know, but I know it
is sweet, very sweet, and his arm is linked in mine.

Ahead of us are two banks set with houses and edged with reeds
sharp-edged and long as swords.

It gives you a sort of dizziness to follow the banks straight ahead
without removing your eyes. These two lines, separated forever and
mingled forever by the current, are fascinating.

A marvel. Is it not a marvel? An arch. Rising from the ground on either
side, its loving, solid curve clasps both banks and brings them together
in an embrace. Nevertheless they are like two convicts. Yet at one point
they become a single bank; they touch, they merge. Then they go on,
their bed widening out. In spite of appearances they are still closely
united in order to sustain the deepening river which will place its
mouth on the mouth of the ocean.

       *       *       *       *       *

Yes ... one more look....

Above the slope leaning down to lull itself in bliss, the sky has just
enshrined a light cloud the color of periwinkles, and the arch resounds
like an Hallelujah in stone.

Come.


XVII

He entered.

I cannot say how I reacted to the first steps he took into my life. I
have only a confused impression left. The man who entered was not one to
whom I could be indifferent. He was an aspect of my own being which was
taking form and moving outside myself without recognizing me.

He approached shyly enough. My heart rose ... he approached ... I felt
vaguely that a large event involving me was taking place in far-off
regions, and the shadow of his body spread an immense new something
before my eyes.

I thought him very gentle. I noticed the metallic clearness of his
restless gaze, and that his figure suggested a great tree which
dominates the other trees and lowers its branches so as not to be alone.

What was he going to do among these people, what attitude would he, the
single sane person in the entire gathering, assume? How was he going to
behave in this brilliant drawing-room filled with twittering women,
dazzling lights, bare shoulders, ripples of laughter, and heavy
perfumes?

I had tried hard to cut a figure but soon had to confess myself beaten.
The women spoke a language not like the rest of the world's. Their
vocabulary was limited to "masterpiece," "infamous," "divine,"
"diabolical," "delicious," "intriguing." In their presence an average,
disgracefully normal, tame creature like myself without vices or
virtues, had to keep mum.

The old gentleman advancing screened my escape from the group in which I
had been trapped, and I managed to retreat to a safe corner, from which
I saw the women fasten on him with a buzz of talk, a whole gamut of rosy
bosoms and a great display of fireworks.... Further off the hostess was
keeping a watchful eye to see that no one of the women distinguished
herself too much. The elderly laughing gentleman must have been some one
of importance....

The tobacco-laden air was gradually getting to be unbreathable. The
noise pounded incessantly. I sat riveted to my chair without daring to
move, as though a nightmare were upon me, the sort in which a terrible
load oppresses your chest, though you remain conscious. "I am dying, I
am dying." The load weighs more heavily. "No, I am dreaming, I am going
to wake myself up." But you are impotent; you can't shake the load off
and you can't come out of the nightmare.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was just as I was exerting every muscle and scrap of courage to
escape from the oppressive spectacle--I had devised a polite
pretext--when he entered.

The hostess went to meet him with her wide smile, her hand uplifted, and
the phrase of greeting she had repeated at least twenty times since I
had been in the room.

She steered him my way, threw out a rising syllable, a descending
syllable, like two balls between our two faces, and then propelled him
over to the group while I listened to the muffled echo of his name bury
itself in my heart.

I forgot the smoke, the noise, my eagerness to leave. Even the weight
lifted from my chest in the very way a nightmare suddenly takes wing and
yields to a dream of clear, bright meanderings.

They did not pay much attention to him. The loud dame who presided over
the group captured all eyes. She was plump and short; as she talked she
flapped her arms like fins, and every now and then let out from her
chest as from a great case a vibrant laugh, which sent undulations over
her salmon-colored bosom. When she herself had done laughing, she would
cast her eyes about in quest of approval as though levying tribute from
the faces. But when she encountered the newcomer, she had to stop
because his frank gaze pronounced disapproval and denial.

How I wanted to thank him!

The company had been too much for me; it became too much for him. Soon I
saw him cast about for a retreat.... For a second his eyes glided over
me, I alarmed him as he had alarmed me. Then he slunk away, with the
same crushed, crestfallen manner that I must have had.

He walked off ... the curtain of palms ... he disappeared.

By fits and starts the nightmare returned, clutching me with clammy
tentacles. The noise fell in slabs, the weight on my chest suffocated
me. Through a mist phantoms glided by, exchanging absurd bows,
disjointed gestures, and disconnected remarks. A woman in a spangled
gown with hair like flaxen wood-shavings turned and showed a chalky
face. Others followed her, branded with painted red smiles. They were
all hurrying. Refreshments were being served under the rotunda. The
subdued clash of silver against glass sounded along with the clatter of
china, little exclamations, and the shuffling of feet.

I am dreaming. Impossible that a gathering of human beings should be
such an outrage on life, such a parody of it. When living persons come
together and have attired themselves beautifully, it is for the
interchange of what is best in them, not for the spilling of gall and
the raising of a hubbub. I must be dreaming.

Little groups were coming back; women's laughter cut the curdled air
like sharp lashes.

       *       *       *       *       *

Again I made a painful effort and rose. With the looks of the women
riddling me and paralyzed by the men's attention, I crossed the room
driven by a force that operated for me. I found myself beside him.

       *       *       *       *       *

He raised his eyes slowly. Did he smile? I no longer know. But he
looked--as I must have looked--as though he were gazing into light.


XVIII

I have a new friend.

A friend.... When I see him, it is like a revision of all I am, a kind
of unusual sincerity that urges me on, amplifies me, and carries me
toward him.

When he is away, I have the impression of having discovered a treasure
within myself from which I draw in deep draughts....

And also of hymns striking up beneath my tread.

XIX

"Why? Yes, tell me why you squeezed my hand so hard?"

I lean towards him, my head touches his chest. He is enraptured,
overwhelmed, and as smiling as the night when it is about to pass.

He did not answer.

A silky wind blows down from a sheltering eminence and carves his face
and makes me cling to him. Are we on the borders of the true silence,
the ultimate silence in which human beings find themselves face to face?
"You! You!"

A terraced garden. If this were another evening, I should be discovering
in detail how beautiful the garden is. Each walk opens up a paradise,
cool and secret as a spring, and the pebbles shine like glowworms.
Borders of irises with violet fragrance dissolving among their stems, a
profusion of spreading boughs, and near our bench a thicket from which
at intervals darts the straight streak of a gray-bird's flight. Below us
in the distant semi-circle across the fading daylight the sparkling
apparition of a group of houses lighting up.

The sight of all this beauty fills me with such a glow--almost hurts
me--because I feel _he_ is looking at me.... He says: "Your shining
curly hair, your broad, clear forehead, your mouth, your eyes."
Mentioned in his quivering passionate voice my hair, my forehead, my
mouth, my eyes are so new that I close my eyes so as to see them ...
And I did not know....

The garden has changed. Pale ochre reflections. Little shivers damp and
creeping. Heavy black pockets on the parasol tops of the trees. The
mournful andante of a swaying cypress. As though it were the first time,
my beloved, that we were alone and had only found each other this
evening under the narrow sky.

The shadows spread haphazard piling up in ridges, drawing after them dim
white trails. Unknown thoughts escape from everywhere. They are too
swift for me. The breeze carries them away. His face at my right,
blurred except for the prominent features, is silvered over and turned
into a medallion....

Am I quite sure that he is still close to me? I tighten my hand in his.
The true, regular pulse at his wrist assures me all is well and down
here everything is fair and _true_. The garden and the leaves, the
multiplying lights of the town, the gloaming are all real.

The air is stirring and freshening up. Let us walk. Straight ahead of us
as far as the last terrace with its ornamental balustrade; then we will
follow the Broad Walk at the entrance of the garden.

He takes my arm gently. I do not dare to lean on it, though the weight
of his presence bears me to the ground. I feel I am alone in upholding
his life. Who will tell him, who will ever tell him the whole drama that
this means? Will he ever know how I see him, how he lives for me? Other
people and he himself see his huge figure, always a little bowed as if
he never dared to be altogether tall, the steel of his eyes, and the
slope of his forehead, which every shadow exaggerates, and his gaze
bemired in clouds. They may see his simplicity and transparent
kindliness; but at this they stop.

I am caught in what is inexpressible in him. I assume all the questions
a man may put to himself without being able to solve them, all the vague
poignant evils. And when he appears, I feel that a word has been
fashioned to express everything, but not a single word to express his
face. It is too outside of everything, too mysterious, perhaps too like
my own.

We are at the Broad Walk, a solemn pile in which the trees go two by
two, close together, erect--a cathedral. A chilly silence lays a sheet
on your shoulders, the nave boldly thrusts its black pillars upwards,
and the branches topping the vault wed in the sky.

In spite of yourself you say something in a very low voice. "Up there,
that red glow as through a stained-glass window."

"Tell me you love me ... tell me ... tell me you love me...."

He has said _me_, he has said _you_, as if it were possible to stand
this shock on your breast without turning pale. He sees I am sinking and
passes his irresistible arm about my body. The future tears itself to
pieces at the bottom of my life. At the end of the Broad Walk the last
golden ray goes down in a black mass. I do not know how to say these
things, but I raise my head like a slow remonstrance and I hold my gaze
up to him. Have I said everything?

Let us return. I can go no further. He takes my hand and presses it with
the warm strength of his fingers. It is limp and inert, the palm
lifeless and cold.

What have I done to deserve this diaphanous gloaming, this prolonged
rhapsody rising about us? I have loved once already, and that counts I
know. But if I had not had this great passion to love another man, if I
did not still have it, would my heart be so clairvoyant? Would the new
evening be as mild as it is? But if in spite of my deepened heart, I am
not yet all-embracing and big enough?

We have gone the full length of the Broad Walk and back. Have we really
gone so far? Behind us the view retreats into the opaque distance, and
the whole pile, as mournful as a church abandoned by God, fades away
slowly beneath a pall of silence. Our walk is almost at an end. We still
have to cross a deserted spot, where thin bushes hold up their charred
arms to support the slanting line of the gold and black rays.

       *       *       *       *       *

Does he see this high dizzy instant passing close within our reach? I
might snatch it perhaps but for these mad throbbings, this veil over my
eyes, the dryness of my lips. Only the fragments of the instant reach
me, but even they are beautiful enough to dazzle me.

He stops and faces me and his gaze fixes on my throat. Doubtless he too
is catching the fragments....

What are you to do when you are a mere humble human being and have no
power to retain the superhuman moments?

May my longing for truth at least flame out. My love of truth is my
finest quality, my one merit. May it shake me as the wind shakes a tree,
and may my hands, if they dare, rend these garments which hide me from
his eye. Garments are a lie, and the moment is naked....

He has understood. He trembles so visibly that I feel my breasts quiver
like twin flowers and my whole being stir. He draws me to him and holds
without daring to embrace me, small, panting, fainting away....

       *       *       *       *       *

The pile has been swallowed up, the Broad Walk has turned black, the
beautiful moment has fled through my fault; we have only a few steps
farther to go. If I have nothing to give him, may he at least share with
me the one idea I still retain.

This idea is the strange knowledge I have of my body, but of a body no
longer mine, so lucid has it become, full of resonances, coursing blood,
warmth and appeal ... a body of mysterious flesh and tense limbs, as
bright as a torch, as sensitive as a soul ... a body I want to give
him--my body and my arms.


XX

"No, don't get up, stay where you are; it is I.

"You told me you were not going to work this evening, so I came. I want
to talk to you.

"I am going to sit beside you, if you don't mind, on the cushion on the
floor under the window, where I like to sit when it is as light as it is
now.

"I hesitate, not because it's hard to say. On the contrary, it's too
simple, and things too simple are beyond words to express.

"I really have nothing to tell you. You understood. You know. But it is
right for me to come and right that the confession I want to make should
revert to our love, for it has to do with our love.

"How you look at me.... Your eyes probe to the depths.... Yes. That is
it.... You do see, don't you? I love him.

"Perhaps the confession, which is so long, so long in beginning and has
weighed so heavily, is already finished?... No. Since my eyes are
overflowing, I have not yet made it. Well, listen, I have no idea any
more of what I am going to tell you, but don't interrupt, let me say
everything....

"Oh, I wanted to speak in orderly sequence, and I promised myself I
should not be moved but would talk to you quite simply. When I came in,
I felt I was growing and rising. I heard my own words stirring like live
things.... But they are trivial; they hurt me so I wish I could find
others.

"To think that here at this window we have so often talked of love, not
of our love, but of all love. You remember? You used to say--I think it
was you: 'What is beautiful is not the face you love so dearly, it is
the need to love it dearly. What matters is not the delirium in which
two people lose themselves, but the truth they discover.' And when you
and I evoked those two rays of light which are one, love and truth, our
words were so vast that we had to stop talking.

"This evening--do you know why?--instead of telling their splendid
secret my words are mere splinters ripping my throat.... Yet when we
used to talk here, I did not know love was so beautiful; we did not say
it was.

"You certainly saw the change in me, and you guessed. The morning when
you stopped in front of me and restrained the exclamation in your
breast, I was sure you knew. Perhaps it was very apparent. I came and
went in a radiance; the house grew chilly, everything in the house was
conscious of it and unnatural. Evenings I worked later and later, as if
I were afraid of falling asleep, and when we discussed things, it was I
who explained, I who knew. You must have seen, too, how often I buried
myself in silence, content in it sometimes, then tortured.

"You observed me. There was no reason for speaking one day rather than
another?

"A reason has arisen.

"It was yesterday evening. Walking beside him I suddenly realized that
in him, in us, in me, there was a sort of attraction; I responded to
it--with all the strong, fine need of truth you gave me. It is this need
of truth which brings me to you this evening.

"Take it, take it before giving it back to me. Don't let us ask whether
it is more painful for you who receive it than for me who bestow it. Let
us forget that man retains the proud authority of the male in his flesh
and says "possess" as of a thing. Don't let us ask whether the union
between man and woman is sublime to this degree. Let ours take that
stand. One always has the time to suffer in, but there is only one time
in which to love in truth.

"See, maybe it is at this very moment when my voice is worn threadbare
and in spite of yourself you push my head away and hold yourself up as
if you were about to fall, that we draw closer together than ever
before.

"You are watching the night as it comes creeping ... you see, don't you?
There is no question, not for a moment, of parting, nor of my loving you
less. Because our hearts are turned towards each other to-day. A miracle
is taking place. It will not be undone.

"Listen to me. Listen to me as if you could understand. Let me spread at
your feet the infinity I hold.... Since he came, if you only knew, I
love you more. Not only do I feel your smile and your whole presence
around me like a thousand arms and with even more than one heart, but I
feel surer of myself, nobler, and--admit it--more beautiful.... To love
you is to think perfection, nobility, light, and to stretch my hands out
to them. It is nothing else.

"To go to him is to continue myself; it is not to lessen you.

"But.... Is it the dusk or the reflection of the tree? Your cheeks are
ashen, your eyes are quite wet, and in spite of everything, in spite of
everything I am hurting you.... At the moment that you love like a God,
you suffer like a man....

"It is because our understanding is a high one that your grief is deep
and my confession necessary.

"If you knew, if you knew....

"You see, I still tremble before stopping just as I hesitated before
sitting down, because once my confession is made we shall both feel that
it is closed forever.

"Does one ever know whether one has not omitted the essential word, the
life word, the one that means everything and has not been said? I no
longer know. It is as if I still had it within me....

"Let me stay where I am, near you, for a long time. You will let my head
rest on your knees, the night will succeed better than I in revealing
the heart unseen.

"Perhaps he has come already.... Tell me ... do you hear him?"


XXI

How happy I was!... I listened without stirring to the deep throbbing of
his life. I came to know him better through the regular pulsing of his
neck, the twisting of his arms and the warmth that passed between us
than through our past meetings. All the warm invisible things that work
in the depths of a human being, the changing fate, the mystery
circulating in the blood, were talking into my ears.

Here we were alongside each other, breathing in unison--can you have
enough of such happiness? I entrusted my entire being to him; it was a
pure, holy fulfilment.

       *       *       *       *       *

There's no use trying to sum matters up differently. It may be that at
death you find the higher expression, the illumination so sought for,
but the living have no other way of saying the truth to each other than
through the flesh.

       *       *       *       *       *

You understand, don't you, that you have to rest from living? No longer
to have this gaping heart, this pitiless, relentless love, but simply to
lie stretched out close against him, so that the whole universe comes
rushing to you, the mystery reveals itself, and life finds
consolation.... Does God ever bestow greater charity?

       *       *       *       *       *

I have just given him my life, my body, my very depths, and he is gone
to sleep.

Then, a human being never knows what another human being gives him?

Physical love joins nothing, leaves nothing. Nevertheless, it seems to
bring everything, and it does bring everything at the red moment of
embrace.

The joy at which I grasped has departed; my lips are dry, my arms empty.

Yet a little while ago I thought I was going to live like God. And to
have had the hope of living like God for a single instant is in itself
beautiful enough.


XXII

"You really want to know what I am thinking of? And why I look so
obstinate with my eyebrows projecting like a black roof over my eyes?

"I was working out an idea, the sort of idea that seems silly when you
try to express it, but is really quite reasonable and logical....

"Why do you insist upon my telling you? I assure you it's so simple that
you, a man, won't understand.

"Well then. I was thinking of your wife.... No, don't interrupt ... the
woman who shares your name, your home, your meals, the money you earn,
your cares; the woman who lives beside you--here's the one wrong--in
utter ignorance of your love for me.

"I was imagining--this is where the vagary commences--a meeting between
the two of us, not a meeting of constrained smiles, not the
confrontation of two human beings, with elements of the dramatic and the
divine. Do try to follow me. Put together the details I am going to give
you one by one the way they are in reality. Give the extraordinary
interview the ordinary setting of humble, banal, tame everydayness. I
told you it was a silly notion.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I go to visit her. The interview takes place amid her familiar
accustomed things, which assist and protect her. She sits beside the
window--her little sewing-table, her work-basket, a dozen scattered
articles. She sews without thinking of much, in the broad daylight so
dazzlingly brilliant that you can't see the swing of the pendulum. Her
head is bent, the sunlight grazes her neck. You feel her spirit is with
her needle and thread, that is, crystallized in calm. Her tranquillized
body submits in advance to the impending visit. She has only to lift her
eyes to know the limits set to her being, the very boundary-line of
everything she awaits.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I enter. I go to her. My steps erect a hedge of sound around me. To
make myself seen I raise my voice.... How make myself heard? I do not
know.... Since truth is triumphant, the announcement of my presence may
be triumphant also. It may write 'I love him' all over me before we
shake hands or even give each other the first look.

"She knows. She knows everything. I feel bathed in a vast thankfulness.
Just imagine: when people talk of you, she is the only one in the world
who knows down to the very roots of her being the full content of their
words. It is as if I were speaking to God.

"Well, I begin. Laughing, crying I impart what cannot be imparted. I
hurry. The words flowing from my lips warm me with their generous wine,
and I hear love pouring forth.

"I see myself, almost on my knees, scarcely perceiving her. Is it to her
that I address myself? I speak merely in order to remove a barrier
obstructing the light and to say the truth.

"In the breathless words that I pour out at her feet it is not a
question perhaps of either her or myself. Why should it be? I never
considered that I was doing her a wrong. If she reads my face, she will
see things as they are. Have I turned anything away from her, have I
diminished her portion, have I deprived her of anything? I have simply
given you everything.

"Don't say she might repulse me and would be right if she did, because
that, after all, would be the human way to act. Human to you means
everything that deceives itself and denies the essential grace,
everything that falls and dies in the mud of the road. Are you quite
sure that a woman when she loves does not feel that sort of humanity
die?

       *       *       *       *       *

"You look at me dubiously. Of course you cannot know. You men tolerate
an understanding between two women when it exists for the sake of
cherishing the dust-covered memory of a man. A tomb reassures you. You
will never allow life as a pretext. According to you we have no right to
a sisterhood until it is too late.

       *       *       *       *       *

"In my unfailing and fatal sincerity I say your wife might understand.
Truth striking the ear is bound to impress. And that I should be alive
as I am alive at this moment, with the eloquence and magic that spring
from real presences, is also bound to impress. Look at me. Need I say a
single word? Isn't a great love with eyes uplifted convincing?

"When you tell me sometimes that I am beautiful, it is like a gift. She
would see me bearing this gift, and if she perceived her forty years
moaning and fading at my approach, she would understand that age in a
woman is an offense love cannot forgive.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Your eyes are searching space. You are wondering where such a
conversation would lead her and me. Don't bother. It would merely lead
me to the side of truth and her to its summit. I imagined that was
enough and one could stop there.

"I imagined that after I had spoken, she would rise and stand without
taking a single step, upright and solemn, her work at her feet, she
would feel the morals of the world collapse, its false hells, its
hardness and harshness, its monstrous delusions, everything that
sheathed her in a coat of mail and incited her to self-defense....
Feeling her heart set at liberty, she would think of you, but of you
with your body sloughed; of your real self hidden where neither she nor
I can penetrate.

"Then she would draw nearer--would she know to what? It is a deep-seated
law in us to try desperately to approach something. She would rediscover
the dazzling moments when her twenty years of age gave her the power to
bid the submissive universe do everything for your good. It would be a
similar instant that I would place like a sheaf of wheat in her open
arms. Don't you see?

"The room sparkles in all its sunlight; every surface sends forth
gleams; the day calls to the day and floats before her. Are we rivals?
We are simply sisters in the same love. I want to take her hands because
I remember that once you chose her....

"Well....

"But my notion is squelched. I couldn't help it. Your astonished
expression squelched it. Before I spoke, when the idea was still
imprisoned behind the wall of my forehead, it gave me a light like a
torch, I assure you. You questioned me, and now it's a mocking
will-o'-the-wisp, teasing me from a distance and vanishing as I advance.
Didn't I tell you it was an idea not to be handled?

"I have fallen short of caressing a bit of truth between my clasped
hands. It escaped me.... And you smile consoled."


XXIII

Twice we said we would part at the turn of the road, at that tree,
exactly at that tree, and twice we passed by laughing at our weakness.
We still could not believe in the separation at hand.

But the moment was upon us.

There, at the house hidden behind the trees and bushes, you will go on,
and I will stand still.

He pressed my hand with increasing tenderness. My laugh taunted us with
so much assurance that I tried to believe in it. To fill up the gaps, we
blustered and said the needless inconsequent things people always say
when they face a long separation.

It was a little before noon. The sheeted shadows cast by the sunlight
burned and smoked in bluish waves. Between the trees of the woods
stretching beside the sea liquid flakes blinded your eyes. You'd see
annoying red spots long after you'd turned your eyes away.

I said to myself: "Only a few steps more and it will be over. One step
less and another minute will be plucked from our parting." To keep down
my emotion I hurriedly spoke of _something else_.

It must have rained in the morning. When we brushed against the
branches, the silence was broken at our feet by the limpid sound of
falling drops, the leaves wore a new skin, and the atmosphere,
impregnated with freshness, smiled the smile of nature when she wants to
dry her tears. The depths of the woods were enveloped in a blue down; a
troop of squat little fir-trees, their skirts on a level with the
ground, rang a crisp chime.

We hurried, so at one in our approaching distress that we went too fast.
The house behind the trees and bushes came into more prominent
view--shutters like eyes pitilessly closed, pointed teeth of a
gray-painted fence, threatening minutiae of a garden descending a bushy
battered skull of a slope. But after all, there can be no such thing as
separation between us two.... And for a moment, to prove the strength of
love, yes, for a moment, I was ready to run.

       *       *       *       *       *

Here we are at the house. Seen at close range with its covering of red
tiles and rugged face and front fanned by two dwarf firs, the little
house in the way of our free career does not seem very imposing.

It must be. What's the use of delaying any more? Is it saddening to part
when each carries away the other? For I carry away your voice, and the
sadness of your eyes, and this kiss I give you.... I do not leave you; I
am not even distressed. Look, I am leaving you.

I took a few steps away. They rang under my eyes. I picked up every
detail of our parting and held it pressed against my heart, each grain
of red earth, each flash of mica in the road. It was not so
difficult....

Behind me I heard him walking away with a tread heavier than mine, which
seemed to set stones tumbling down a mountainside.... Two months....
What is an absence of two months? I decided not to turn around.

The road narrowed and became a serpent of clay, then a creamy winding. I
tried so hard to think of nothing that I noticed a great many surprising
things we had not observed before. That tree with a heavy black ball at
the end of its longest branch which the birds of heaven had stuffed with
earth and was now grass-grown; the slope with a red covering of rich
plants made, you'd think, of fingers dipped in blood....

It was in spite of myself that I faced about. A dark figure just this
side of the last bend in the road.

Ah, he turns round; he heard me. Could we remain apart? I stretch my
arms out to him, I begin to run. Why did we talk of other things a few
minutes ago? Were we insane?...

I have already passed the dead aloe, I am near the house with its two
firs. My abrupt race swells my decision not to leave him. I lift my
eyes. He didn't see me.

His form is no more than a black point, a blind insect nibbling at the
road and entering the earth's lair.... One last step. It is over, it is
over.

       *       *       *       *       *

My arms fall, I turn back stumbling, dizzy. How can you tell what sort
of a road it is when the sun is the color of mourning and the summer has
the taste of tears?... Doesn't he know?

       *       *       *       *       *

Noon. The Angelus tosses its twelve bronze strokes at the sun and they
slowly dissolve. But I am insensible to everything. Everything. The host
of trees, the flashing breastplate of the sea turn around an empty
space.

Why this sky stretching out after the branches, why this sparkling
happiness, why this sleepiness of the earth when I am racked and branded
with a red-hot iron by what I failed to say while there was still time?



BOOK III

_BECOMING_



I


I had been counting the days until I could call the day I was yearning
for by its name, a name new to me every morning. To have said good-bye
for two months, to have lived apart so long and almost without news, and
now finally to be able to caress the ardent moment which gives each back
to the other, if only for a short space; to caress it as you hold your
hands up to the fire. By a great effort I succeeded in remaining calm.

I had put my house in order, filled my vases with flowers, and made
myself beautiful. My velvet gown dulled the light, so that by contrast I
seemed to have a halo round my bared neck.

The hour drew near. The clock struck. But, no, the clock must be
fast.... The next moments stabbed the silence, dragging on leaden feet.
I went to the window. On turning back into the room, I was delighted to
discover a few things to do. The little round corner table was standing
tipped, there were too many leaves in the bouquet ... and this wisp of
hair straggling down my cheek. No, he was not coming. Waiting is a death
died over and over again.

At last....

To think I could have breathed till now! You! He moved toward me rather
timidly, almost as if he were a stranger. It occurred to me that he was
not familiar with my home. A panic seized me: he might not like it.

But in one bound I was close to him, my head on his shoulder and his
arms around me. I forgot everything. "I am so happy, so happy." We found
ourselves in my little room, where the flowers piercing the twilight
opened wide their mock hearts....

But how he had changed; his face had grown thinner.... Why that overcast
brow, that look of depression, that manner of not being at home?... What
was the matter with him?... What was the matter with him?

Though there had been no time for conversation, and we had merely
exchanged awkward, random questions, I felt suddenly that our hearts had
ceased to beat in unison.

He should speak. I must know! Nothing is worse than not knowing....

"I'll tell you," he began, resting his head on his hands. He had
suffered too much by our separation; he had realized this forcibly again
just now when he entered my home where everything dispossessed him; he
could no longer live without me, so far away; he needed me all the time,
every minute. Oh, he knew there was something irrational in his
entreaty, but all he had was plain common sense. "Listen to me," he
said, "there's an instinct, an instinct stronger ... but you don't
understand ... there ... I've told you everything ... that's all."

He began again. His expostulations breathed an awful storm; while an icy
clearness and a terrible calm rose in me. Fear crept into me down to the
very marrow of my bones. What could I say to a man who suddenly talked
another language? All I had was the words we used to....

"Answer me, I beg of you, answer me, even if it is no, but answer
me...."

Did I have to begin all over again--give everything and explain
everything all over again? Until then I had been carried along on the
sustaining bosom of a powerful stream. Now a torrent furiously
discharged its troubled waters and infernal foam into the even flow, and
I had to fight my way back up against the current in a desperate
life-and-death struggle.

So it seems that the bonds of flesh make mock of you; instead of
uniting, they detach, leaving each of you to wrestle and paralyze the
other's limbs like entangling undergrowth.

And does it seem that the bonds of the spirit are not strong enough
because they always lack some link or word or look?

If it were not that I had found complete harmony with another human
being, I should have doubted whether a man and a woman could ever love,
that is, ever understand each other.

The thought inspired me with supreme strength. A hot wave kissed my
mouth and ears; I pushed him away.

His wife. She was the first consideration. Remembering her gentleness, I
spoke of her gently.

To be with me he could give up twenty years of his life in common,
twenty years of attentions and indulgences, twenty deeply rooted years.
She was a frail loving woman who had once been beautiful; she was nearly
forty, which in a woman is to have no age.... Wouldn't my presence,
consequently, result in hurting another woman?... And would I do such a
thing, I who brought so much warmth of feeling and enthusiasm to what
was beautiful, right, and high-spirited?

"In loving you I wanted everything about you to be brighter, easier and
more perfect; and just when I rapturously believed I had succeeded, you
come and brusquely ask me to remove the light from another being. That's
what you are really asking me to do.

"More. The man in whose name I built my house--don't be afraid it's his
suffering I dread; I love him enough to rise above pity. But I thought I
told you that he is necessary to my effulgence; you understand,
necessary.... Remember, he is the one to whom I told the truth, in whose
presence I could live while at the same time holding your presence, who
has suffered through me without loving me the less, and prefers my
happiness to his own heart's happiness. That's the sort of man he is.
That sort of man exists. And you would deprive me of him!

"But if, to get me away from him, you were to offer something superior,
a more perfect means of elevating me and teaching me to _know_, I should
go unafraid, perhaps without hesitating. Love is the thing that
elevates life.... But you, what do you offer? Feeling, instinct.
Instinct is not a reason...."

I had risen while speaking. My cheeks and forehead were burning. His
face, plunged in the snowy curtain, was quite changed. Was it the look
in his eyes or the folds around his mouth?

"Then you don't love me?..." He repeated this like a child taken with
the words, and dropped his head in his hands.

That the light fell about me in gray veils may have been only a fleeting
phenomenon. It cannot be that love will desert you suddenly.

The rest of his stay was of no avail, and when awkwardness fell between
us, he rose, pressed his hands down on my shoulders, and gave me a long,
sombre stare. Then he left. I heard the door close slowly.

Then he doesn't understand? But the love I feel for him is a true love.
It is not that unstable impulse which passion carries off in a puff of
wind. My love, like my life, craves all the victories I have gained, all
the people who are dear to me. And my eyes take in whatever they can of
sky and color.... Nothing forbids me to breathe. Why am I forbidden to
love whatever I love?

My love, you will conquer, you will make yourself understood. You are
not this man who is leaving, nor the other man, nor anyone; you are a
heart of flesh exposed ... a restless heart without limit, a heart
forever beating and forever aimless. Do not let a single one who has
ever been with you fade and drop away. If love cannot conquer, what
else is there to resort to?

And I ran out to overtake him.


II

Only a few months since the first day of the war, yet I cannot recall
one thing about it.

What I know is, that until the end it will remain the outstanding day of
my life, the day of days. No matter what happens later, we who have
lived through it have drunk at one draught the dregs of all the
centuries, we have borne all the thunder of the heavens on our
shoulders. Those who ask "Why exactly us" do not know that misfortune is
always waiting to extort its tax.

I do not speak of the older people, those of the _other_ generation, of
the other age: they have not been touched.

But we, we on that day!

After all, I can recall several words and impressions, but they are no
more illuminating than the way my folks used to describe the day I was
born. "You looked like a little red monkey, you didn't cry much, your
grandmother was the first to kiss you, it was a dreadfully hot evening."

And I can also recall Mr. Barret's gray stony face, his huge, petrified
figure, when he entered the office where we were talking and regaining a
little hope. "It's here!" he discharged from the doorway. None of us
gave any sign of understanding. "It's posted on the bulletin boards!" he
shouted, and advanced into the room like a weapon about to descend.

As a field of wheat catches fire stalk by stalk until the whole is in a
blaze, so we caught fire in our stupor, each spiked to the ground by his
own flame.

Fire! Fire! Moments of scarlet, strangled breathing, souls cowering in
bosoms, horror, too much horror already, wide-open eyes staring into
space....

I remember I had to lean against the wall, and other trifling incidents,
but my impotent dismay, my realization of all the folly let loose upon
the world no more come back to me than the taste of the first gulp of
life at birth.

I must have kept a clear brain and steady legs, because I ran straight
home.... What street, what hell, where was I?... I had no eyes for the
street nor ears for the humming in my head, nor consciousness even of
the daze that was driving me on.

We met in front of the house whose quiet walls still enclosed our
happiness. We passed under the porte-cochère heavily, passively, like
beasts driven to slaughter, and the staircase was an ascent to Calvary.
I do not think we exchanged a single word. When the door closed upon us
we embraced without kissing, and my cheek against his shoulder was wet
with tears that were not of my shedding.

It had occurred to me that he might leave for the war, but like every
other thought this one too was promptly chilled and crushed. Nor can I
say that it was the idea of his going that made me suffer the most. I
was stupefied beyond the power to suffer. I was just as ready to burst
out laughing or tear off my arms. I let myself be touched, handled, and
moved like a stone thrown into space. But contact with him restored me a
little, a very little, to the realization of what I was going to lose.

The days succeeding were spat from a volcano; nothing remains of them
but ashes. You learned new words; a whole language born of the moment
slipped from your tongue; countries became persons with distinct
individualities, gestures and features. You actually fed on what
appeared in the newspapers, picking up items like grains of manna. Men
alone counted--men, men. Life was in their hands, life and the fate of
the world. So and so many killed--abstractions with which the world
juggled in figures. Death, a human divinity after all, settled down
familiarly. Nothing was like anything that had gone before.

People began to talk of glory....

A day came: his departure.

I got his things ready as I always did before a trip, from a list, with
my usual mania for taking along too many things. After filling his bag
with all the necessaries, I stowed a tiny bottle of my perfume in it, a
cigarette-case, his last birthday gift, some dried flowers, and our
baby's photograph. I childishly pictured his exclamation of delighted
surprise when he would remove his shirts and the picture would fall out.

Before he left the house, hardly recognizable in his uniform, he kissed
his son savagely and pressed him long and hard, bending low to hide his
tears.... On the way he spoke mostly of the child--commonplaces to
deaden his pain. "Don't let him be too much of a bother. You must be
strict with him, you know." I saw he was entrusting his share in his
survival to me, and it was better to avoid reference to a parting that
marched on to death.

Regiments were springing up on all sides, troops of men with innocent
eyes and faces shining with pride; sons, brothers, lovers, changed into
statues of men, in a confusion of brass bands, cheers, red and gold,
clashing of arms, and tramping of feet.

If only this were hell in its completeness! But he was not there. He had
left six days before without my being able to say good-bye to him.

There was the last kiss, the fixed, tangible second when you part for
good and the yard of space between you actually counts. You were two
bodies clasped, then you became only one body, two arms ... a soul
locked in a leaden coffin.

There were the wretched minutes when you summon all your illusions to
your assistance. "Nothing can possibly happen to him ... of course not
to _him_...."

I returned, dragging my misery like a chain. I was one of the vast herd
which fretted the surface of the earth like a canker, moulded and moved
by a deadly maniac hand.... Never before has there been such a herd.

Being a woman, I felt withdrawn from the herd, exactly as I had felt on
the first day of the war that humanity was cut in two--men and women.

I was impotent, curdled, set aside. Like the other women I passed by the
young men with orders to die and only a few days to live, though their
bearing was of men who had long to live. I passed by the other women,
useless flesh of the earth, faint-hearted flesh for grieving....

I went.... In another sense it was the herd that passed by, that
she-thing, in countless numbers, dancing bacchantes with hideous
hyena-laughter and robes smelling of red blood and heavy wine,
compliant....

You no longer saw yourself, because you had been swallowed up in a
living craw.

       *       *       *       *       *

Where were you, my sisters from everywhere, women of Europe, you, Trude
and Clara and Mania? What were you doing? Were you weeping?

You saw, didn't you, that bloody sky with forked black signs, that
summer swooning away, that day?... Why was not your voice heard in
denunciation of the universal slaughter?

Why was not my own voice heard, when there were outcries in my throat,
tears in my flesh?


III

I am becoming horribly accustomed to going about the empty apartment
alone. I find I no longer think of the scowling walls, the dumb silence,
the dim windows. They wrap me in a vague acquiescence. Habit is exerting
its awful power.

I seem to be gliding down a slope where there is no one at the bottom to
warn me that there may be a precipice ahead or tell me whither this
strange existence leads.

My days are regulated according to the rules I myself have made to apply
only to myself; I go, I come, I turn the key in the lock; I loiter; then
I rush at my work. Sometimes the mirror casts a sudden image which runs
away busily at my approach. My shadow and the creaking under my tread
are all I have for company.

Yet this is not the first time I have lived alone. There once was a room
with a flowered quilt, a moth-eaten carpet and a rickety door which
opened like the lid of a devil-in-the-bandbox on the mahogany wig and
scarlet smile of Mme. Noël. But everything was so different! I brought
nothing to that virgin space except the desire to fill it; my body knew
nothing; my inner being cried out for too many things to be able to hold
any of them, and had I dared, I would have stretched my arms out through
the window to embrace the air of life....

My solitude now is like rotten fruit; it scorches my entrails like a
fiery drink. It is a strange solitude.

Two men peopled my life and fertilized and vivified it. But wasn't that
very long ago and somewhere else? Come, try to remember....

I do not know; they are neither dead nor alive. To be sure they are
hungry and thirsty and get bored as living people do, but they are
locked up in the earth's carcass like the real dead; and it may be that
at this very moment when I am imagining them warm and active, they are
already stiff and cold. To be absolutely truthful, to go down to the
bottom of things, there is scarcely anything in common between the two
men who went to war and me who stayed behind.

Sometimes when I am alone, I lean over, way over, to touch the very
bottom of things so as to feel the pain of it.

Yes, letters pass between us. When I read their letters I try to imagine
their surroundings and the crass details of their life; the fir-trees of
the Argonne, the name of a regiment which I know by heart like a prayer,
frost-bitten feet, the incessant thunder, and the arrival of the postman
which draws us a little closer together. Then there is Carency--the
place makes no difference--the light cavalry.... Attack, formation, the
first rank mowed down, the second, the third; he alone standing upright
in the front of the fourth rank, a struggle lasting a century, the
confused subsidence, and my portrait snug under his blue jacket. And
that night last week when he was nearly dying of thirst and crawled out
over the open field, groping for something to drink. A miracle, a pool!
He fills his mess cup and empties it at one draught. He spits out thick
threads, they hang from his mouth--bits of brains.... A pool of human
blood from which he has quenched his thirst.

I receive a letter nearly every morning. The envelope burns in my
fingers: the written lines make a pretense of talking and telling you
things, as if I were not standing in front of him as you stand in front
of a window-pane which you frost with your breath so that you can't see
what's on the other side.

I write to them before I go to bed. Nothing important ever turns up, so
I make a lot of the little everyday affairs--what happens at the office
or at lunch in the restaurant where the people discuss and wrangle and
the smells turn you sick. I tell them how forlorn the house looks, and
how well the child is getting along in the country, that I do some work
after dinner to make a little more money. Besides, there's always some
anecdote to relate.... Twelve strokes cutting into the metallic
night.... Sometimes when I fold my letter I have a sense of having
written about somebody else.

Nevertheless, the thought of them is an obsession; it is a red point
about which I develop and revolve and add to myself.

And sometimes, too, when I shut my eyes, bizarre notions swoop down on
me, a horrid swarm of bats. "How many women are there to-night," I
wonder, "who are tossing about in the thin warmth of their beds,
distracted creatures, tormented, empty-armed, who, however, are the
bigger for all this, easy in their minds and free already in their
bitter freedom?"

Yes there are many women to-night without husbands or lovers who wonder
as they lie in bed; then they sit up and lean on their elbows ... they
don't _know_ yet or suspect anything ... but they don't sleep, they
can't sleep; it's too absurd to think that a woman can live all alone,
sleep alone, even breathe. And then it might be that the closest union
is a prison after all.

At last I fall asleep, and in the morning, in the bald, shivering
twilight, I go back to my doings of the day before, somewhat cowardly
doings. Dull habit, which greases the machinery of life, leads me
blindly along the streets to the office.

Was it only two months ago that with despair in my heart I passed this
corner where the chestnut-stand sends up its whistling steam? His letter
in my bosom had told of the night attack and of his possible death; a
brief, heart-rending farewell. Is he in less danger this morning, is he
less cold, less hungry? I just passed the same corner worried for fear I
might be late. The whole way I had been thinking of my dress and winter
hat.

That's how you get used to the martyrdom of others.

Even if it is the flesh of your flesh that undergoes the martyrdom, even
if it is the man of your love--ah, don't say no--you get _used_ to it.
In suffering one person cannot take the place of another, and pain
cannot be shared. The first day, because grief turns your head, you
think you are sharing the other person's pain, but the other days, all
the other days?

Why not have the courage to look crude reality crudely in the face?
There are no people who are inseparable, there are no couples who are
inseparable.

He is in the trenches, the men are in the trenches, engulfed in misery,
exposed to danger, plagued by vermin, and I am here alive and untouched,
grazing this large wall patched with three-colored placards. "Women ...
your noble rôle ... noble work ... honor...."

Honor? What honor? I work. Isn't that natural? He is suffering, he is
going to die. Didn't I see my own dormant energies wake up? And if he
has given all, have I not taken all?

Five minutes to nine! I hurry, raising my coat collar in a shiver and
clasping my hands inside my soft muff.

At the end of the street a dusty gust driving a handful of people along
like dead leaves, women with billowing skirts, a tramping, whistling
gang of blue-lipped street boys, and old Noël with his breath frozen on
his beard.

       *       *       *       *       *

_They_ have left. Even if they return, they have left. That's the whole
thing. There will have been a space of time when they were wiped off
the face of the earth, and life went forward without them, was lived
without them, and women actually _continued_ without them....


IV

The typical young lover, well built, good-looking enough but without
charm; his youthfulness armed with a timid pretentiousness. I had always
avoided talking to him, but this evening he got hold of a foolish excuse
for walking home with me. I tried hard to speak of something else and
quickly switched the conversation on to another track when it took a
certain turn, while he, a hundred times more proficient than I,
certainly more obstinate, dragged the subject back to where he wanted it
to be.

The eternal comedy of man. The same words--who will tell them that they
always use the same words?--to reach the same goal. He made awkward,
crafty attempts, watching me out of the corner of his eye, and when he
saw I was escaping, he declared himself, throwing up his dice and
staking his very heart. His voice was rusty, his nose pointed downward,
his ears were fiery.

Until then he had seemed fatuous, almost ridiculous in his little
perfidy. Now he was ennobled, like a saint, pure, supplicating. His
whole body took on grandeur. How he trembled, the poor boy!

When my answer was given--a woman who doesn't love has a lot of ease
and gentleness at her command--"Forgive me," he said, "I have offended
you."

I watched him as he walked away, his back bent, humiliated, I suppose,
but bathed all the same in the hope that rises from the words you dare
to utter.

Forgive him! As if any woman ever harbored bitter feelings against the
man who gave her the great gift, as if a single one of us ever remained
untouched, as if a mysterious yet positive connection did not establish
itself the moment love was declared.

I remember all the men who ever loved me. Each thinks he has discovered
you, and offers you your secret. Each does in fact discover you, and
also kisses you a little.

I shall remember this young man, too; I shall remember the strip of
mackerel sky showing above the street crossing; I shall remember the
stammering mouth whose youth demanded its satisfaction from mine, the
mouth that touched mine in thought.


V

I have had the sensation of death.

Not in the instant of dying; that is still a part of life; but in the
instant after death.

I had gone to the end of the pier, where the water lashes incessantly
and regularly, and seated myself facing the open sea. To right and left
the green shore curved and the fir-trees ran down toward the sea to
hold in the pale sandy strip edged with foam. Over my head the
procession of clouds.

Sunday morning. The voice of the chimes from the old church, buried in
the heart of the island, was music sent by the air and tinted blue by
the waters. At each stroke you expected to see space divided in two.

The sea was smooth and sleek with dark, wide, winding oily tracks, which
looked like roadways traced by the sure finger of God.

Looking down at my feet I saw a sparkling play of meshes of rainbow
light. The iris fragments dented the surface, formed into chains, made a
covering of diamond facets, and drew downward full rainbows resting on
myriads of arches. It was an incessant disappearance and reappearance.

It was fascinating to watch. The only thing that distracted me was a
swarm of miniature fish darting under the pier more lightly than
insects. For a moment they showed dove-colored, then orange; then they
melted away. You tried to fasten your eyes upon one of the cells of
water, just one. You had it, but no, it was another one.

The sun was so hot you couldn't lift your head. A broad sunbeam falling
perpendicularly on the hard surface of the sea cut it in a blinding
fissure, which attached the foot of the pier to the horizon.

Caught between the heat pouring down from the heavens and the freshness
rising from the water, my body lost its sense of weight, form,
equilibrium, and even of breathing. Every bit of feeling was gone from
my legs, my neck was burning. My soul and eyes existed for nothing
except the stable yet ever-changing mosaic which laughed a thousand
laughs at the face of the sky.

There was nothing but light. Substance, eyes, body, memories, all seemed
to be losing themselves and making a plunge into light.

There really was one moment in which I ceased to be. My existence
underwent a momentary eclipse. I was no longer some one obstinately
facing a realm of infinity in order to measure its limits, a very small
creature who wanted to add herself to nature. I was the immense,
permeating idea of the ocean, the sun and the sky.

It was between the singing ether and the silvery water that I seemed to
foresee my nothingness, because when consciousness left me and I ceased
to be, the sparkling eyes of the sea formed again, the blue oily tracks
unfurled themselves, the glittering fissure sucked in the same line, the
blue deep followed its unchanging course. Everything kept on behind me.


VI

Nothing but women....

Not a single pretty one. Two, four, ten, a hundred ... there must be two
hundred.... Not a single pretty one....

To be sure, the weak unsteady light discolors their faces and throws
drab blotches around their features, but that alone does not account for
the general stamp of dullness which makes them seem like a flock of
widows. The two men sitting apart on the crosswise bench like
well-behaved children who have just been punished, have a sorry air, not
at all the air of having done it on purpose.

I am impatient. A woman addressing other women.... What is she going to
tell us? Will the audience brighten up?

I am standing with my back to the platform facing the door to keep watch
for Eva for whom I am reserving a seat beside my own.... Alas, something
for a merciless eye to feed upon! I can hardly bear to look at that
uncultivated field of dingy heads. But there is nothing better to turn
to--moldy walls picked at and peeling, smeary stains on a colorless
floor. Your ears are pierced by a rising babel.

Eva at last.... I draw a breath of relief and feel, as I always do, like
saying "Thank you" to her. Great floodgates open, my poise is
restored--a living proof.... Why this blitheness? Because of her smile,
her radiance, her frankness, the glory she carries about with her from
the clear image of her child and husband? I do not know. She exists,
that's all. When I think of her, I have a complete sense of happiness
and confidence.... Perhaps this is friendship.

She has a little trouble making her way through the hall. Her head, set
in velvet, rises above the field of heads like a taller, brighter
stalk; the precious gems of her eyes show in full. She sees me, her face
brightens.... "Thank you," I say, very low just to myself. After all
there will be one fine face in the room.

We had scarcely shaken hands and seated ourselves when silence fell,
broken here and there by coughing.

The speech.

The woman making the speech is also ugly. Yet what resources in that
ample body. Under the armor of her corset, there are fine, noble lines,
I am sure. Under her sausage sleeves there are the arms of a mother,
even perhaps of a woman in love; the huge pancake on the nape of her
neck shows she has long shining hair silky to the touch; and what
tenderness in the depth of her eyes which dart glances in our direction.
If she dared, what sweetness....

She came to speak to us from a platform for the purpose of conveying her
idea and a little of her soul, unaware that a valiant soul is a visible
soul. The only means we have of showing our souls, sharing them and
giving them freedom, are the ordinary means--our actions, the bare flesh
of our lips, the sincere tears of our eyes, our bodies which encase our
souls, our smiles which beautify our souls, and our voices.

This woman's soul is a strained voice, but how marvellous. The rows in
the audience remain stationary, each head staying fixed in the position
it held at the first word she uttered.

The women's horrid cares, their marketing, their husbands, their
children, their dishwashing, their difficulty in making ends meet, all
the everyday trifles that weigh on women and enslave them, are driven
far away. The pale blonde with faded eyes beside Eva probably made the
same O of her mouth when she spelled out her letters as a child. The old
woman nodding "Yes, yes"--the two plumes in her bonnet respond "Yes,
yes"--has forgotten her stupid drudgery.

They are all stamped with a sort of pathetic imprint; love is their
element, their strength, their medium. They listen with love and
understand through love. Love gives them this serious, fixed
attentiveness.

The woman with the burning insignia of her stove on her fiery cheeks has
lost all traces of worry except for the scolding expression of the
mother whom you imagine with a horde of children jumping round her like
little rabbits. And the thin girl with the dusky gaze--we've all seen
her kneeling in the shadow of a confessional mumbling her sins with her
mouth glued to a wooden grating from the other side of which comes the
warm breath of a man without a face--what ardor she, too, is capable of!

Instead of the voice of the speaker on the platform it is the women's
outcries that I hear.

These women have been imprisoned by themselves, hampered by their own
lives, and what lives! what a miserable heap of desires and troubles in
the face of the immense thing which gathers all beings together and
makes them resemble one another, the thing unanimous and intangible that
I hardly see. I don't even know its name. Before it I am like a blind
man who has never seen the sun, but suddenly feels it shining on his
forehead and exclaims: "There is light!" It is this _thing_ that has
made all these women come here to-night and bestow their childish
presence, their somewhat uncouth attention, their tragic lips which
would kiss everything. Do they feel the great current rising from them
which seeks to be caught and held fast, a current altogether new in the
human atmosphere?... Not yet. Not yet.

How subdued Eva looks; her gaze seems clipped short; she's frowning. Her
expression makes me uncomfortable.

Hands flutter like white leaves; a bow from the platform; the meeting is
over.

The auditors stretch themselves a little, then rise to the accompaniment
of clattering benches, gossamer sighs, and the sound of two hundred
bodies moving and coming back to themselves. A faint cackling, then a
full chorus of barnyard noises mounting and spreading.

I plant myself up against the wall to let them pass and see who will
cast thorny glances at my hat, dress and shoes.

"Come on," cries Eva. Her forehead is drawn in hard lines. "Come on."

Outside, the night blowing upon the parting groups of women gives their
scattered voices resonance.

Eva takes my arm ... but no, I feel like being by myself. I repel her
bluntly, as you throw aside a branch you have broken. She instinctively
draws her cloak around her.

"What an absurd evening! Those women!" she says.

She is right, I am sure. Every one of the women, it was easy to see, was
ugly and petty, but together, multiplied and magnified, their
individualities wiped out, they revealed I cannot say what unformed
hope, what substance, what richness.... If only I could explain this to
Eva!

"Hurry, hurry, here comes my street-car! Good night!"

The buzzing of an electric bell, an intense disk of light, another
buzzing, and the little illuminated house stops. With a flutter of her
skirts and a wave of her hand, Eva disappears.

Has she really gone? Goodness, what is she carrying away with her?...

In the nebulous depth of the long avenue I can still distinguish a
vanishing star gliding along its mechanical path.

I had said: "Here is my friend, my companion, my sister." On this
evening, tender as dawn, she has left behind in me a great emotion which
she does not understand.


VII

"A lady," the fat concierge told me. "Been here twice. Well, a sort of
lady, a ... you understand. Her cheeks--her skirt--you can see her legs
up to here.... Believe me or don't believe me, but she's twin pea to
your Marie. If she comes back, what shall I tell her? I won't let that
sort into my house! Eh? Kick her out?"

"Oh but, M. Etienne, I am at home to-day. Let her come up."

I closed my door blushing.

Through the banisters I recognized her. Actually Marie!

"Come in...."

She went in ahead of me to the dining-room--"my dining-room," she used
to call it--and seated herself deliberately. Genuine timidity hides
itself behind a mask of absurd audacity.

"Marie ... Marie ... is it possible?"

She was wearing a large red straw hat turned up at one side and weighted
down on the other side by a nodding mass of huge black plumes, two tall
elastic antennae, the sort worn by horses drawing hearses. Under the
chalky enamel you couldn't see her freckles, but her eyes, her lovely
eyes of purest aquamarine, with glints of indigo from her blackened
lashes, still retained their dewy look of astonishment.

Here was Marie. At last I was going to know why she was so mute and why
she ran away one evening without taking along her bundle of clothes or
her prayer-book. I was going to find out how a poor little servant girl
rebelling against kindness could become a poor little swaggering
over-dressed prostitute.

"I have come for my things."

"They are still here, Marie; I'll go and get them."

But I couldn't budge. This phenomenon coming so close to me was
appalling. I looked at her. She had the soft, awkward charm of a little
astonished beast. Seated there in my presence she made an ingenuous,
piteous sight, like a ladybird you're afraid of crushing, or a wilful
timid lamb withdrawing from your caress.

I noticed all sorts of minutiae--that she carried a cloth hand-bag, an
exact copy of a bag of mine, and tied her shoe-latchets the very same
way I did mine; was very neat, her shoes polished, her hands clean, her
neck fairly waxed with soap. Her gaze, once aimless and imprisoned,
harpooned the things in my room and withdrew freighted with
discoveries.... And she gave me acid, persistent looks like the looks
one woman gives another. "Has she aged?" her looks questioned, "has she
changed, is she prettier?" Her eyes roved around the room. "Ah, that
little étagère was not there in my time, nor that engraving.... Who's
doing her work? The place looks well kept." She parted the collar of her
jacket at the opening to show off her imitation brooch. The child had
become feminized, she seemed older than ever.

"Why, Marie? Why?"

I couldn't restrain myself any longer. She leaned her elbow on the
table. When she raised her eyes, they were underlined with red and two
slow tears cut little pathways down the powder on her cheeks. I jumped
up and took her hands.

"I didn't like--I didn't know what to do with myself. It wasn't my
fault. No one cared about me...."

The great answer to the riddle. They all have this devouring need. What
they ask of love and look for in love is "someone to care about them."

"And then my hair, my Breton dress ... everybody stared at me. 'Aren't
you ashamed?' I used to think."

Another need--to be like other people, to be just as good as anyone
else--why not?--to have a bag like madam and hats like the hats you see
on the street....

"That's all," she added.

It was all. When women sell themselves, it is not poverty necessarily
that drives them to it. You don't know the hell of jealousy that burns
in all of us. There are some women who make themselves beautiful less
for the sake of pleasing men than for annoying other women.

"You must be unhappy."

"Yes, ma'am."

Is a poor little thing like Marie sensual? Women are rarely sensual. If
they are, they have not been so from the start; they have become so.

Her Breton accent came back. "Madam," she said in her singsong of four
years ago and in the same servile tone. Now she felt like relieving
herself and telling me everything. There was one man who really didn't
disgust her, but he was at the front, and if only he could come back! In
the meantime she practiced economies and perhaps they could fix up a
home and perhaps he would marry her. But if he did not come back,
then--

I had been to blame, I alone. I had been satisfied to deplore her grim
silence and do nothing. But I ought to have humiliated myself so as to
earn her smile. I ought by talking to her to have driven out of her
heart the longing to equal and surpass which prevents us all from being
human sisters. I should have....

We are all to blame for the prostitutes, we are the ones at whom the
stones should be cast. Nearly all of them are little Maries with the
craving for just one man, the peaceful healthy desire for a secure
hearth, but we tolerate poverty, and we don't know how to talk to each
other.

She put her package under her arm. I did not know what to do. I went up
to her, humble of heart, and rather awkwardly kissed her cheek streaked
by tears and sullied by paint.

She started, shaken by a revulsion. The liquid blue of her eyes turned
sharp and aggressive, her lips narrowed; she held her little bag close
like booty. Then she departed, leaving the door open for the smoky
darkness of the landing to creep into my rooms. She had the untamable,
sullen expression of a hunted beast.


VIII

Twenty days passed without news.

When I woke up, the early sunlight had a reassuring effect, the morning
chattered familiarly, my terror of the night before took wings like a
fancy. Hope swelled within me.

The postman's ring, sharp, strident, unbearable, reopened the wound. I
rushed to the door. Nothing. A circular, an ordinary letter which I
didn't have the will to open.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was exactly twenty-two days. I forced myself to sit down at the
table, but my courage was completely gone, and the alarms of the night
which haunted the room gripped me by the throat. Well, there would be
something to-morrow. It was impossible....

Anxiety, from the moment it began, made me neglect myself--no prinking,
no housework, dust powdering my furniture. The most I did was to turn
back my bedclothes. What did all these things matter? I wanted to sleep,
sleep....

Coming back from work I slipped into my flannel dressing gown and
slippers and let down my hair. I did not even take the time to warm up
my dinner prepared beforehand in the morning. The plate was on the
table, an orange, a piece of bread.... I'd eat.

I couldn't. The mouthfuls choked me. I couldn't do one thing. I was
overwhelmed, almost paralyzed, by an unconquerable weakness. I threw
myself in my armchair. I would put the room in order the next day. I
would work twice as hard, but not to-night....

Sleep....

Torpor gained complete possession of me. The darkness gathered, and when
the last streak of twilight came through the window fluttering on my
eyelids, a little hope returned.

After all, twenty-two days was not so terrible. Many people had had to
wait longer. Hadn't I had to wait sixteen days once? Letters get lost on
the way.

I visualized a scene--a hospital ward, a row of beds, white coverings,
nurses. How was it I had not thought of it before? Wounded!... A slight
wound which kept him from writing.... I welcomed the certainty. It was
so comforting that I tried to hold on to it by jumping right up and
shaking off anxiety and being happy. Anxiety is an insult to love.

I groped for the lamp, turned on the light, and laid some reading matter
on the table. The disorder was dismal but--to-morrow was another day. I
sat down to read.

The lines leapt at my eyes. You'd have thought them an army of ants
running over the page, running, yet always remaining at the same place.
Should I try to work? Should I try to make up a package for him? That
would be two packages this week, but two are not a whole lot.

My heart gave a great leap. The door-bell rang. Who could it be at this
hour? My very life went round in a whirlwind, I flew to the door.

Some one in black shrinking in the dark doorway in the humble attitude
of a sister of charity requesting alms for the poor. My aunt Finot!

I murmured a few little hypocrisies and put up my hair. I was fuming
inwardly, although actually a little relieved at the prospect of a
visit, which even if tedious would mean a human presence, a tangible
certainty. I was so upset I came near saying "Tante Finot" and giving
away the nickname by which she had been called in the family for twenty
years.

"Come in, aunt...."

She stepped in ahead of me, hunching up her body. The disorder struck
me ... my home was usually so neat ... and my dressing gown ... my
run-down slippers--

"An awkward hour for a visit, I know," said Aunt Finot, sitting down.
"Are you feeling quite well, dear?"

"Dear" in that mouth with lips like two tight-drawn catguts! It stabbed
like a dagger.... She sat perched on the edge of the chair twisting the
straps of her hand-bag. The lamplight threw dusky shadows on her
skeleton frame and turned her eyes into the sharp-gleaming eyes of an
executioner. My God!

"Has anything happened," I asked, "anything dreadful?"

"You see, dear ... don't get excited ... listen...."

"Dead!"

An abyss yawned at my feet, something flashed and grazed my eyelids.
I...

My aunt rose slowly. I saw her hands on the table knotted like a tangle
of cords.

"Don't get excited. Your family received bad news, I don't know from
what source. I asked them if it was official. They were all half
crazy--afraid to come and tell you.... I always felt an affection for
you, you know...."

"Yes, yes, I understand; he's dead."

There she still stood, her knotted hands on the table, a grin widening
her flat features. There she still stood.

"Aunt, please leave me alone, please do."

Perhaps she went on talking a little, perhaps she leaned over to kiss
me, perhaps I heard words falling from her lips like pellets of lead:
"country--trial--sacrifice." The door closed upon my slaughtered love.

I know I tried to stand up--it was like trying to lift a tombstone--and
drag myself to the window to lean my forehead on the pane; but something
pulled at me from deep within, something cold and incomprehensible, like
a slimy slug, like a deep gash in living flesh. And a strange dizziness,
not entirely physical, threw me back into the armchair.

The walls of this black hissing pit into which I fell were the walls of
my dining-room, the very same walls papered in a scallop design, and I
saw a cloud of tiny coal-black butterflies, mere specks, whirl without
end from the blackened lamp-chimney.

My being turned into something enormous and gaping, which fed constantly
upon a great wound. I was so overwhelmed with a senseless horror that at
moments during the night his death seemed quite normal and natural. But
when I withdrew my hand from under my head a multitude of serpents
wriggled about within me, and I felt suffocated again and began to
tumble through emptiness, while little pointed teeth bit my blood and
left behind a penetrating icy poison.

It has ever been the same, Lord God. Suffering is too monotonous....
When a bit of sense and ordinary life returned and cried in my ears: "It
is over. Never more," I felt that suffering is too monotonous; and when
a clamor of revolt sounded in my being: "They have killed him!" I felt
that suffering is too monotonous.

And when the dawn came tapping at the window and creeping toward the
table, drab and livid, when I rose from my bruised knees, and when the
humming and buzzing began in the indifferent house, I still felt that
suffering is too monotonous.


IX

Your beloved is dead.

News that comes from the depths of the ages or the depths of the flesh;
you can't tell.

One day--there--a clap of thunder. It bursts from your flesh and tries
to enter your flesh again. It beats at the portals of your heart,
besieges your ears, howls round your entrails, but there is no place for
it, no part of your body wants it, your soul retreats to shelter, your
heart drips black blood, your mind goes round and round. News, News!
Your beloved is dead!

No need for the thunder to break. I knew it was brewing in me.

When we used to come back from work and I kissed him with this very
mouth and embraced him with these very arms, pressing him so hard that
he laughed sometimes, it was premonition of the News that kept my lips
sealed to his cheek so long, and turned my arms into iron clutches, and
gave me warning when I woke up, and frightened me in the dark.

We used to talk about it and try to imagine what separation by death
would be like. "If I die, if you die." We wanted to provide against it,
we had accepted it.

My beloved, the knowledge of misfortune is not the misfortune itself;
the knowledge of death is not death itself. When we were together we
never imagined I should suffer so much. When people are together, they
can't imagine what it is to be alone.

It is like childbirth over again, I assure you: I remember your face
when I shrieked in travail. I am more torn now, and you are not here to
hold my hands.

Why do they all say suffering is necessary and ennobling? I can testify
that suffering doesn't do any good.

I used to be a gay, active woman, who went about with chest expanded, a
body full of pleasure, lips like kisses, and cheeks alive with color. I
used to get up at five o'clock in the morning and stay up until late at
night. After the day's work in the evening I'd say "to-morrow" as if
anticipating the loveliest day in the world. I had poverty, laughter, an
appetite, I had a perfect union with another, and I maintain that this
counts. I led a life according to my own will; I had a bright child. I
had all this, I _was_ all this, this was my lot....

To-day I am a woman whose eyes are swollen and corroded with salt tears,
whose features are sharpened, whose shoulders stoop, whose black dress
bags on her reduced figure, whose eyes are turned inward, whose house is
untidy and whose evenings drop into darkness without the lamplight. My
little one has to call me.... I love him without a smile, and as for
myself, I hate myself.

I used to try to be kind and make it pleasant for people in my home. I
am like a thistle withered on its stem, I am like a fruit cut open and
thrown out on the street. I am useless and bitter--I am bad.

When people come to me, I feel the pricking of their thorns, and I
wallow in gall. They are all enveloped in an awful respect for death. It
revolts me.

My family comes to visit me, each one of them chockful of advice and
dropping honied words.... Yet I was more worthwhile when I was happy.
Why didn't they incline themselves when there was still time? They seem
to send up a cry of relief. "At last! You're suffering! At last a person
can approach you!" They console me and lull me; they are crows
quarreling over the remains of a charnel-house.

But when they have the effrontery to extol his virtues, it is too much;
my grief springs to the attack. The idea! They hated him while he lived!
Keep quiet, don't insult him! I wish to be alone with the knowledge that
he is dead.

But I don't utter a word; grief has lips of stone; I keep my secret
locked within me while seeming to listen to them. I sit in front of the
fire, my hair loose, my forehead drawn, watching the flames blaze and
the embers fall. After all, their presence, their footsteps pawing the
silence, mean only a little additional pain. Time passes, and they're
sure to go eventually.

Has the door closed on them? I don't know. I can hardly move.

I am alone with you, my knees clasped in my hands, while the castle in
the fire slowly crumbles on its gray dust.

Some mourners at least have the consolation of mourning real dead--real
dead whom they have seen stiffen into death, whose last words they have
received, whose last agonies they have tried to soothe, for whom they
have done everything they could.

But you, beloved, are you dead? I don't even know. "Fallen on the field
of honor?" What does that mean? Was it in the evening or the morning?
Were you alone? Did you cry out? Did you suffer terribly? Did you open
your eyes once more? Perhaps you couldn't, perhaps you called and called
for me? Perhaps you thought I should have come? Ah yes, I should have
been there; it is my fault. I have always cured you, you know I have. I
simply had to hold your head in my hands and your pain was eased.

But I didn't die--I didn't die at the moment of your death, that moment
too frightful to speak of. I didn't die when life was drowned in your
mouth. We knew the whole truth concerning each other, yet when you were
dying I may have been smiling.

For fifteen nights, fifteen days, fifteen years my heart has been crying
that you are dead and that it has lost the hope of ever seeing you again
in your clothes exactly as you used to look, with that manner of
yours.... Fifteen days since I have been trying to learn again, begin
all over again, and call everything into question again. Fifteen days of
impotence. I see only what is.

There is earth on your hands, on your eyes, on every part of your body
wherever it may be. Your feet are cold and gray like the feet of a
pauper, your skin is bloated, worms are preying upon you. I don't want
to--I cannot see you as you are. When I think of you I have a false
vision of your living self with your cheeks of the color of life and
your dear natural gestures. How can I help being all bewildered? Nothing
is left. Even the memory of you changes from day to day. I can no longer
recall the right tone of your voice. Your corpse is hidden. It is as if
I were suffering for no reason at all.

Not to know how to suffer, perhaps that is what suffering is.... Not to
divine where you are, is that your death?

The sparkling hearth-fire has scattered and gone out. Fire has devoured
fire. A few embers reddening here and there, a porous heap of fanciful
firebrands.

And now, and now, my beloved, if I no longer see you, I do see the
consuming truth. I see it and here it is: I let you go. I consented.
There's no doubt of it, it was _I_ who killed you....


X

I felt a great need for fresh air and light. What the nature of this
hunger and thirst was I cannot tell.... The sunshine suddenly lighted up
the window-frame. Its golden rays coming through the open casement and
falling obliquely upon the objects in my room filled it with numerous
fires. It was a salute.

To be out of doors, to walk, to feel the sun on my skin!

I had a letter to mail. The thought of it brought me to my feet,
impatient, ready.

Should I take the little one along? But how about a good long walk, the
semblance of distraction?... I decided to go alone.

With my eyes close to the image in the mirror, I powdered my face and
puffed my hair on each side under my hat as I used to do. How the least
prinking helps a woman! Instead of the really ugly pointed little face
smeared with pallor, which, without arousing my shame, had visibly
lengthened these past weeks, there was a face of warm, even whiteness
and of an oval not so pronounced, eyes which, even if dark-rimmed, had
lost their fixity, and a shower of red tendrils like coppery breaths
blown on my forehead.

The early spring was making itself felt. A raw wind was raising the dust
of the streets. Assailed at the first step by the blue, dancing,
swirling air, I walked falteringly, like a prisoner who has just been
released and doesn't know where to turn.

Everything the same. The old bridge still stretching its badly joined
planks from the paved street to the road where the wistaria bloomed. The
patched, mossy roof of the old wash-house a few steps from the mill
still displaying its dog's-eared edges. The same vistas across the green
breaches between the houses.

Every corner of the town held out a memory to me--here a two-year-old
memory, here a distinct vision crouching. I called to the vision and
welcomed it. My life was not dead, and my heart was open and there was
still a man to love me....

I had been unjust in the black moment of despair. My share of love and
light still remained. Did he know I was a widow? Since he had been taken
prisoner six months ago, no news had reached me and I didn't know if he
had received any of my letters.

The broad sunshine expanded my chest and warmed up a vision so tender--a
hope or a memory--that I was stung by a pang of remorse and almost felt
like chasing it away.

I reached the center of the town, where there were more people and
especially more well-to-do people.

Feminine figures, which I recognized, came toward me at a dull gait. I
knew them; I had seen these old ladies at prayers two years before. They
wore the same dresses and the same hats, the sort you don't see anywhere
except in the provinces.... Hypocritical hands as I passed the houses,
lifted the crocheted curtains. I was preceded by mystery and followed by
whisperings.

Every passerby seemed to be blaming me for the dazzling sunlight which
my eyes were embracing; every house scowled, and the whole street, in
spite of the pleasant weather, wore veritable mourning, not mere sadness
and solemnity, but mourning, and the people looked as though they were
in a slow funeral procession, the women strangled in black, upholstered
in crepe, and buried alive in their hoods and veils.

The Cathedral square was resplendent with profane joy. The birds swooped
from one to the other of the great, white-dappled plane-trees, and every
now and then one perched on the statue in the fountain, a clumsy girl
with petticoat of stone and turned-up sleeves, a decent bosom bared, a
sheaf in one arm, and an eternally dried-up urn in the other arm.
Through its high lanceolate windows and the tracery of the two
rose-windows Notre Dame was drinking in light and making mock of its
ancient front.

It was a brilliant day, and the world rejoiced. I tasted the savor of
living. In spite of myself I fell into the nervous, elastic step of old
and drank in the living air like an intoxicating elixir.

An idea took lodgment--he was familiar with this scene, these crabbed
shops, hostile promenaders, and square of bourgeoning; he had walked on
these cobblestones; and at the edge of the town was his little summer
villa. The idea went round and round, very fast; and I was weak; so I
clutched at it for support.

       *       *       *       *       *

Another veiled woman in black....

That figure tending to heaviness but graceful and in the very mould of
femininity is not unfamiliar. I have seen the woman before. You can
tell from a distance that she wears the mark of the widow, a hood-like
hat faced with white.

She too;...

I am interested in her. In the country you are interested in everybody
you meet.

Who is she, I wonder. She seems to be about forty, but neither her hair
nor her cheeks have lost their freshness. Who....

My heart bursts, alarm comes rushing, misfortune approaches.... She
walks toward me--she is only a few feet away.... If she would only
stop ... it is she ... his wife!

       *       *       *       *       *

In the time it takes to walk only a few feet you can undergo the acutest
agony. I held my breath and for a second time felt death strike me with
its thunderbolt. I had time to become a widow too.

She advanced terribly: it was death advancing along the sidewalk. I felt
I must detain and implore her. With jaws set I restrained a great
convulsive outcry and flung myself in her way.... My lips gave a sort of
cluck.... She fixed her eyes straight ahead and turned away deliberately
as if from a drunken beggar.

I looked and looked after her....

       *       *       *       *       *

She departs--forever--her skirt grazing the ground. Her veil carries
away the remnant of my joy, leaving me there stupefied and convulsed,
alone under the sun. She departs....

My God!...


XI

My son is growing up.

He has reddish-brown ringlets, his cheeks are vermilion, the blue of his
eyes radiates seraphic calm. He is probably going to be very handsome.
Often people stop me on the street to tell me how lovely he is, and for
a moment I feel some pride.

He is beginning to show human traits; he talks, he expresses a desire to
touch and possess things, and likes to listen to stories, which used to
make no appeal: "And then, Mamma? Tell me, what next?..." I always begin
by kissing him.

My heart has grown with him. I have just begun to feel that his
existence is rooted in my own existence. What welds me to him are not
only the pains I take for him, or my perpetual anxiety. I am welded to
him by the kisses he already gives me. When he says "Mamma" in his
inimitable way, I am proud and overwhelmed; when he puts his arms round
my neck, it is as if I were usurping a reward too perfect for me.

The terror with which he filled me when he was so little and frail is
disappearing. I have rocked him, watched over him and suckled him; he
has strong legs and a strong body; nevertheless a much greater terror is
growing in me.

The greatest terror of my life. To bring up a child, to hold in your
hands not only what he will be, but what he may be; and to decree
everything, the colors he looks at, the words he hears! To give birth a
second time to a living creature. To be worthy of it....

And to have nothing to help you but a heart wise yet too intellectual,
the heart of an adult.

To have this timid heart, the maternal heart, too prompt and misleading.

Not to have anything else!


XII

I was sitting on the grass beside the rugged, windswept path which
follows the curve of the sea. Instinctively I straightened up out of my
careless attitude into the attitude of a woman in danger.

He is coming closer, he is very near....

He forces himself to assume the indifferent, I don't-know-you air of
some one happening to be passing by, but he shortens his strides, and in
spite of himself his face dilates and beams with the delight of the
hunter striking the trail. A little more, and he'd let out a whistle.

Should I try to escape through the woods by cutting across the railroad
track? Should I?...

"How do you do?"

"How do you do?"

The man is handsome, decidedly handsome, even in the full light, and I
smile at his coming as I smiled a few moments ago when the sun climbed
over the slope.

I had always seen him in the dusk when he returned to his smart white
house held fast in a coil of green. He would stop a moment at the rusty
gate and give me a lingering glance out of his long-lashed eyes.
Yesterday evening when we passed each other on the road, his eyes were
like black enamel, but now in the bare light of the morning they are of
a more crystalline gray than the sea.

A tragic duel of looks ... a thousand questions asked and answered ...
wonderful understanding ... dizziness ... unbearable dizziness.

He stands balancing himself on his feet searching the ground for the
nascent lie. Then he puts a direct, confident question--is this
magnificent weather going to last? I in my turn dissemble and scrutinize
the silent, motionless horizon.

Safe! Hypocrisy between us. He has found a suitable topic and exploits
it cleverly in jerky little phrases, rather sensual, like the kisses you
give a child. He points his three-cornered head at me and tosses back
his thick black mane.

He shuffles his feet. "Answer me," beg the glittering eyes. "Answer
me.... I am asking you a question...."

No, I don't want to answer. A word thrown out now and then with the
fervent assurance one always has under a desirous gaze; also the
defensive attitude men force upon you. I lean over and begin to pluck
the rich grass methodically, producing a fine, fresh scent and the dry,
peaceful sound of a browsing beast. Two bare spots in the velvety slope
and several light blades zigzagging in the wind....

Will he go?

He understands. His chest collapses like a pair of bellows and he draws
his two long legs together ostentatiously.

Why this tricky manoeuvring? Why thoughts unspoken? I am a part of the
tender landscape to him, and I realize he is looking at me tenderly. Why
not dare to make a pure, natural confession?

"Good-bye?"

"Good-bye."

I can't be irritated with this man; I haven't the courage to; the
weather is too lovely.

When you see the jolly morning frolicking on the road in cap-and-bells
and look over where the blue curve of paradise lovingly touches the
brown curve of the earth, all you feel is a warm indulgence.

It is too beautiful. The trees mingle their branches, the rays of
sunshine mingle their warmth, the birds mingle their songs. Down below,
the tide is coming in with the rush of clanking chains submerged by a
host of swift, frisky little waves....

And this man with the knavish eyes is nothing more than a black particle
blown by the wind to the end of this promontory where a few clustered
pines taper into the azure.

It is too beautiful. All you can do is close your eyes.

I close them--to shut out for a while the dazzle of the water in the
indigo basin, the thousand golden bubbles in its centre, the thousand
silver teeth biting at its edge. I don't want to think any more. All I
want to feel are the warm darts which pierce my hands resting on the
grass and the peculiar sense of well-being which takes the place of
everything else....

Have I really slept?... Sweetness, the sweetness of lips kissed by
breezes, a sweetness complete and overwhelming ... a delicious life.

But ... this black gown ... my dead ... I have nothing but my grief,
nothing but my grief. What wrong have I perpetrated that my grief should
forever sing in my ears?

Ah, just to forget.... Everywhere the earth breathing happiness, the
blue, blue rolling waves, the almond trees veiled in faery whiteness,
everywhere the nuptials of joy.

Grief, where are you? Everywhere space terribly alive, with hope in
every color and death just died for the last time.


XIII

It happened as it does in novels. The man suddenly feels the beast of
prey panting within him and yields to it hotly; the woman writhes under
the fiery coercion and gropingly reassumes the ancient ways that have
come down from time immemorial....

Even to the words I used. Where did they come from, the words that cut
him like a lash, whipped up his desire, and then fell on his face like
drops of ice water?

I was ashamed. I straightened my hair and left the room. How was it
nothing warned me that I must be on my guard against the man alongside
of whom I had been working daily? Had I been blind? I tried to extract
something significant from my recollections ... but no....

I am going to leave him soon, and I must speak to him.

His disappointment gives him a humanizing air of meekness. It inclines
me to him. You feel intensely that other doors are open and, if you
wanted to, you could knock and gain admittance.

This grim laconic man, whose ways are confined to the ways of command,
who has been sterilized and handcuffed by the barren power which money
confers, looks at me intently with eyes raised like a child's. Women are
wrong in supposing that a man forsakes them when he renounces his
desire.

I speak to him disconnectedly, but I am leading up to what I want to
say. And he moves his face a little forward and still a little further
forward; it's as though he were drawing closer, step by step, step by
step. And everything external about me is effaced by degrees, my
sunshiny hair, my mouth, my body present but concealed, my entire
femininity. An infallible instinct tells me this. He takes in my voice
alone, and is surprised that my voice talks nothing but sense. But he
is going to know if it will talk sense straight to the end, so he
settles himself more comfortably in his armchair, lets his eyebrows
relax, and loses all thought of himself. His logic is being appealed to.

"Now as to your money ... you know if I married you it would not be for
your love.... Your money?... It doesn't count? You're right, it doesn't
count.... I might not have discovered it at once. I might have said, as
I did the other day, that I don't love you. I might also have thought of
my aversion to the idea of marriage. Don't look like that. Marriage as
it is to-day is immoral and stupid. Don't say my marriage was perfect.
The man I lost was a rare soul. For ordinary people like you and me
marriage brings nothing but misfortune and mediocrity.

"To marry is to lie, to deceive both yourself and the other one; and
when a man and a woman harbor infinite hopes, when they look out upon
perpetually changing horizons, when they have the choice of all the
roads in the world, and the whole of life spreads out before them, it is
absurd to suppose that they can ever subject themselves to each other.

"You marry, you pledge your soul, you promise your flesh. Once
imprisoned, you maim yourself, and should the call of love some day
become too strong, what other alternative than to lie or break the
chains? Deceit or catastrophe; there is no choice. Love does not
reconcile the primitive hatred between man and woman: on the contrary,
it sharpens it; and for two people to venture upon the impossible
enterprise of joining together two opposite destinies the full length of
their courses, requires a spirit that neither you nor I possess, a
spirit greater than nature bestows; it also takes the intellect of a
God. I assure you it does....

"Perhaps you would have waited till the very end to bring out your trump
argument. But I would have rejected your seductive words angrily. They
would not be to the point. The point is, that if I were to become your
wife, my lot would be as I have described it.

"You lean forward, you approve what I say.

"The simple fact is, I couldn't live. There would be no use my trying. I
should not have the strength every day to witness a real death unless I
had the tiredness and the sort of forgiveness that come from hard work.
I simply couldn't eat with appetite, I couldn't sleep in peace.

"And in the morning, if I did not know that this exultation, this unruly
vigor, this swarming of scattered inclinations could not be controlled,
dammed and curbed by laws ... no, I would not dare to begin to live
again....

"In a single day there are too many temptations, in a single body too
many feelings; the inner life, remote and _secondary_, must learn
through humble duty to subdue itself by merely keeping its attention
fastened upon the external life. If we listened to the goodness, the
heaven we all carry round within us, what would become of us? I for my
part would not be capable of resisting long.... I believe you understand
me. You yourself have felt what a help and support your daily routine
is. I never paid much attention to you, you were only one of the many
supernumeraries on the stage of my work, but I respected you because you
made a part of my efforts, and you too took great pains with your work.

"Every time I left you, I felt gentler. Though fatigued I felt free to
think of myself, buoyant, wiser, unloaded, as if my sins had been
forgiven me.... I had paid my debt; I owed nothing.

"I do not know if work in itself is a good deed. God probably never
meant it for us. Not to lie does not mean to discern the truth, and to
work is not to find the truth, but it is to have the right to advance
toward truth and put oneself in a state of grace and health.

"Then remember that you dared to offer me this miserable fate, me who in
doing the same work lived beside you as if under the same roof, who felt
imbued with an austere ardor. But you saw nothing, learned nothing,
understood nothing. You horrified me. What you did yesterday! Good
heavens! You attacked, I defended; we are quits.

"And the money spread out glitteringly to gag me at night....

"You must be just. While you were going through your day's work it never
occurred to you that I had my day's work too, and my strong arms and
the energy and chastity deep-seated in my body.... What was the value,
the slight importance I possess as a person to you? What was my peace to
you?

"Even if you make fun of the exigencies of the soul, do you think it's a
question of the soul alone? And how about one's relation to other
people? You go out of your house on to the street, you see the crowds on
their way to shops, offices and factories. You have to look the
working-people in the face.... Tell me, how do the men and women who
have _nothing to do_ look the workers in the face?

"I see this doesn't touch you. You are withdrawing. To keep you leaning
toward me, I myself and I alone have to be the subject under discussion.
I must be uncovered, laid naked, by what I say...."

I felt a sudden surge of blood to my cheeks and my lips; our looks
crossed like swords.

       *       *       *       *       *

Here I am with nothing more to do, my arms hanging at my sides, the
sudden weight of my useless words on my shoulders. The man follows my
example and rises.

"I shall go away, very far away. Don't mind. That's the good of being a
woman who works; you're not afraid. You may be at the mercy of
misfortune, which is always lurking, but not at the mercy of human
beings....

"That's all, I'll go now...."

In the silence that cuts in I feel how this man is wishing I'd never
go--wishing it so strongly that for a moment he touches love and a path
is opened along which I could take a step, but only a single step, no
more.

My eyes stare into space. I hear the mournful, eternal good-bye you say
to things--this table at which I worked, the afternoon sunlight laughing
through the window, all the familiar objects, which reel slightly from
the separation now beginning, from the nascence of everything that is to
be....

He presses my hand. And I think of all the men you could convince if you
wanted to take the trouble....

If you had the time....

If life were not a choice.


XIV

Her head is nodding and dropping lower and lower, her fingers are gently
loosening their hold on the square of embroidery: my mother has gone to
sleep.

She comes to see me frequently now, and always arrives panting, loaded
down with luscious fruit or bottles of golden wine "from your father."
When she prolongs her stay after dinner too late to return home that
night, I give my room up to her. You can tell--poor mother--that her
visits are undertaken for duty's sake--pilgrimages on which she never
fares forth without a preliminary struggle: "That child--you can't
leave her all alone--you've got to be sorry for her."

When I opened the door for her this evening, I could see there was
something on her mind. Her face was drawn, and contrary to her wont she
kissed me two or three times. Was there going to be a battle?

Dinner was over, but I still waited.

"Oh, by the way, my dear, this idea of yours--your plan to go away--it
isn't serious, is it? How about your position? Are you really going to
carry things to such extremes? Your obstinacy is very annoying. What
whimsies you used to have when you were a young girl, that faddy notion
about earning your own living ... and marrying against our will--yes,
against our will.... Your poor husband is dead; so you've paid, and your
father and I are willing to let bygones be bygones. If you come and live
with us, you know you'll lead a nice quiet life and have everything you
need. Your room will be kept in order for you, I will help you bring up
the boy, you will be able to go out as much as you want to. We will give
you perfect freedom.... And you mustn't forget you still have a future,
you're young.... Why don't you say something? Am I an enemy? Am I not
considering your good?"

My mother floundered for more arguments. So to avoid idle discussion I
threw my arms around her neck.

She smiled a good full smile, thinking the battle was won and everything
was settled without much difficulty.... Now that she was satisfied, her
best arguments came crowding: she had known from the start that I would
agree with her.

"You haven't only just yourself to consider, you see. When a woman has a
child, she doesn't do any and everything she feels like doing."

Now I had to explain!

"Mamma, dear...."

I was biting my lips and probably wore the same obstinate look I did as
a little girl, because she pushed me away and her eyes flashed.

"And what about us? In what sort of a position do you think it places
us?... Think a little. People will see you suddenly running away as if
we had refused to take you in. What do you think we'll be taken for? And
you, my goodness! How will it look for a young woman to go away all by
herself, on an adventure?"

Her face was purple, her voice came out in a rush, her arms extended
beyond her shadow. She was quite beside herself.

I don't know what made me do it, whether my worn nerves or my terror at
always, no matter what I did, seeing a gulf yawn between us--I burst
into tears.

With her stubborn patience my mother often went to extremes, but she
could not resist the argument of tears. She was taken aback. I had
conquered. She put her arms round me in a large, warm, cradling embrace,
planted short little kisses all over my hair, comforted me in my
distress. "Come, dear, don't cry, don't cry."

I made a tremendous effort to shake off a frightful impression. If I had
had to pay with my life to get rid of it, I would have paid with my
life. But drop by drop the poison filtered into my heart and changed it
into a bitter heart which seemed unlike my own.

With all the appearance of humility in her drooping shoulders and bowed
head, armed with the tricky sweetness of a person accustomed to
yielding, my mother drew our chairs closer together and tried to console
me at any price by talking of something else. She held out her
needlework.

"A tray-cover. I noticed you haven't got one.... Rows of hemstitching
with a square of filet in the centre. Do you like it?"

I dabbed my eyes, forced a smile, and leaned over to watch her draw the
threads. "Wonderful," I said, "marvellously fine, and such tedious
work." I forced myself to fill up the gaps in the conversation.

The evening flagged slowly and gently. The oil in the lamp was giving
out. A drowse gradually laid itself upon the delicate maternal face;
under the scant light beginning to smell of smoke, it looked almost like
a mummy's.

She is asleep now.

       *       *       *       *       *

My imagination is free; the frightful impression carries me far back to
a time shrouded in dimness which resembles my childhood days.

A mere baby still. At night caressing hands tucked me in bed. I held up
my forehead for the kisses of a fairy....

A little girl who ran and fell and hurt her forehead and palms and flew
with her troubles to the living Providence. "Did you hurt yourself?...
Ah, you're bleeding!" I felt the thrill of the miraculous wound because
she caught me in her arms and pressed my undeserved suffering to her
heart. Then she tended me, oh, so gently. When she finished, I secretly
regretted that the hurt was assuaged and I had no more blood to offer,
red flowing blood, in exchange for the doting tenderness that it brought
raining down upon me.

A long illness. A veritable angel hovering all the time. Clouds in my
room, clouds on my bed, and a constant buzzing in my ears. When the
angel moved, a current of freshness reached me, a magnificent hand
raised the head which weighed like a ball of fire, and the heavenly
voice said in the tone of ordinary mothers: "Drink, darling!"

       *       *       *       *       *

When my memory brings me up to the moments of effort, the real moments
which count, I find myself an orphan.

No, you were not there, mother, when my inner life developed, nor the
first morning when I saw clearly, nor when my love came. You were never
with me at any time when my good will acted, never, never. It was you
who stayed behind and left me. I went on my way. Should I have stopped
to stay behind with you?

You idolized my littleness, my tears, my naughtinesses. You covered them
all up, I know. But one can't keep on being ill, or naughty, or a little
tot.

You are the mother, you pardon everything. When father scolded us, you
came with a kiss to absolve us in secret, and sometimes, gritting your
teeth and darting the defiance of a she-wolf from your eyes, you'd say:
"I would forgive you all your faults. I would say you are right when you
are wrong."

But see here, mother, this is what I have done: will you forgive me
this:

I have invoked the truth, I have taken pains, I have climbed up, I have
striven, I have had radiant moments, days of flowering, and happiness
was the same age as myself. Mother, have you forgiven me this?

I am not better-hearted than you, but it is the life about me which
demands that one do more, love more. This is what differentiates and
actually divides us.

Everything that sings and invites one out into the good old world, the
"out-of-doors," seems pernicious to you. What you would have wanted was
to stand barring the door with your arms crossed and refuse me the fresh
air. You yourself avaricious but destitute would have liked me to salute
your avarice and praise your destitution. "Will you set yourself up in
judgment over your father and mother?"

Mother, when children grow up, their eyes open.... And if my son sees me
fallen lower than his love, lower than my own love, let him accuse and
condemn me.

No, it will not always be the same thing, as you say, for that depends
neither upon him nor you, but only upon me. You do not know, you do not
know!

With its expiring breath the lamp sends out a blackish, leaping light,
which splashes shadows on the pendulous surroundings.

I had never noticed the puffiness of her lids, nor the sharpness of her
cheekbones, nor the drooping corners of her tender mouth, nor the
flatness and thinness of her hair, which used to be full and flaming as
my own. Never before had I remarked the tragic similarity between the
dead and the sleeping. And I did not know that immutable Truth sometimes
has the ring of a curse and makes you cry, and yet is Truth.

       *       *       *       *       *

The scissors gliding to the floor awakened her with a start. "What,
still crying?"

She gave the lamp a shake to force a bit of light and said in her
resigned tone, instinctively but unconsciously touching my horrible
thought: "Wipe your eyes, dear ... the dead have to be forgotten...."


XV

The storm raked the streets and stunned the houses.... All night long it
raged; and once the thunder crashed so close by that I jumped out of bed
terror-stricken to make sure the shutters were closed.

The morning dawned sullen, dragging lazy, gray wings on the earth and
taking flight only at the furious onslaught of the wind.

To comb my hair I seated myself close to the window with my face to the
mirror on the wall.

Outside, the downpour and incessant sharp rattle, the blue-lacquered
roofs, the wan drift of the clouds. In front of me, an image which had
my name.

The more eager a woman is to please, the less she sees _herself_ in the
mirror. What she sees is the idea others have of her, a sort of
consciousness of her power, the irrepressible desire to attract.

When I sat down before the glass just now, I must have seen _myself_;
suddenly I felt afraid.

I had raised the tumble of ringlets from my forehead and saw a gleam--my
first white hair. Then I scanned my face closely, pitilessly. At the
outer corners of my eyes a place was preparing for a fine meshwork which
would close up when I laughed.

A mad need fell upon me--to see myself again and again. Around each
corner of my mouth an invisible line had chosen its pathway; the
perfect oval of my face slipped slightly from its frame; under the chin
there was an imperceptible mass which would never yield to any amount of
massage.

I wanted to run away, I wanted to look, I wanted.... I tell you my heart
was leaping from between my ribs, so that you could have taken it in
your hand.

How many years are there left?... Ten years?... Eight years?... Perhaps
only six in which to continue to be the very same woman I am.

A day will come immersed in the other days, similar to the other days,
when this woman will be dead while I shall live.

I try to question space. I turn in every direction. The storm has
increased. The rain is coming down in sheets and rebounding in mist. The
polished pavements are cracked by quivering little ripples. The tempest
drives the people ahead like leaves.

Whence this dread which blows like a typhoon from the future, breathing
on my youth and freezing my blood? Whence these two words which gnaw at
my breast like a canker? Six years....

No, no, it is impossible. I believe in the deluge, in the thunder, in
misfortune, in oblivion. Not in that. Why should this face of mine with
its curves, its marble purity and its color change? Why? I have always
had a fair amount of courage, I have always done what I had to do, but
this renunciation, this hideous acquiescence. I haven't got the courage
for that, no, I haven't.

I am prepared to accept death. If necessary, I will stretch my hands out
to it. Let the one moment of my life which wipes out the other moments
flow into nothingness. Take, strike, I am prepared....

But that "six years, no more," should be written on my face, that people
should see my face and I should hold it up smilingly like a ruthless
gift to those I love, that I should bear the signs upon me of dull
decay, wrinkles, falling hair, withered cheeks, and dimmed eyes.... What
if I refuse?...

I could no longer bear to look into the mirror and see what was going to
be. I held my face to the pane on which a dismal music was drumming.

I have had deep feelings as plentiful and coming as thick and fast as
these drops of rain; some feelings have been vaster than the soul
itself; but the only feeling truly like woman, the only feeling
essentially woman, which weds her soul while wedding her body, is the
immense desire to be beautiful. I have lived through my love of others,
I love my child as though I were still carrying it, yet all the time,
from waking up in the morning until going to bed at night, year in and
year out, from as far back as I can remember, I was cloaked and upheld
by a will to please.

I was not more beautiful than other women, but I wanted to be. In spite
of me and in spite of themselves, the men hovered about me, lavish of
their glances. I moved like a ray of joy, life was a festival redder
than war; I expressed myself without saying a word, all hearts were
ready, they gave me more love than I asked for and almost as much as I
needed.

That was the air I breathed and had to breathe. Is it good, is it bad?
It is an instinct which keeps turning rapidly round and round in you. If
you were to pull it up, it would sprout again.

Then how can it be that some day, though I shall have done nothing to
bring it on, the territory of this indestructible instinct will be
clouded over and made barren forever after? How can it be that I shall
no longer please if I still want to please?

       *       *       *       *       *

The rain is beating upon the streaked window-pane and glides down
against my cheeks in long transparent tears. Every chink in the room is
an inlet for the wind. Around me there is a wailing as if drawn from a
sad, dreary bowstring.

Is it the woman of the mirror? Is it the woman that I am? You can't tell
which woman is speaking to the other woman....

"So you're of the sort to let yourself be disheartened?

"You thought you had said all the good-byes there are to say in life.
There is one left, even more awful than the others. You have dragged
yourself over mouldering graves, yet when you arose you found something
to keep you alive. But as yet you are unworthy of this last good-bye:
To survive it, you need a grandeur you don't possess, a more solid
strength than the furtive power you're proud of. You believed you were
pure, and you were quite sure you lived in your entirety. Look!..."

How ashamed I am, O God. What a stranger the woman opposite me is....

       *       *       *       *       *

At the outset I said to the husband I chose: "I shall cherish your
happiness as much as I cherish my love for you; and if ever your
happiness assumes the features of another woman, that woman shall be
dear to me."

When another woman approached, I knitted my brows and formed a secret
vow to blacken her in his eyes.

       *       *       *       *       *

He loved me as you love your life, as you sing, as you kiss. And I
reproached him for not leaning over close enough and telling me tender
things over and over again every day. I had plighted my troth; in order
not to take it back, I needed actions, words; to keep it, I had to put
his heart to the proof.

       *       *       *       *       *

When I came to know another love, my instinct could not rise to the
height of my idea. I did not know how to bring the two men together, nor
did I know how to make the woman who loved him receive the truth.

And I allowed useless people, useless existences to come to me. I saw
them fighting around me like quarrelsome, chattering sparrows around a
tree; I saw them pillage and carry away in their beaks the ripe fruit of
my days. To know how to live is to know how to choose. I did not know.

       *       *       *       *       *

Everywhere shame. Everywhere in the past, the hell of what I have lost.

These hands capable of everything have done almost nothing. I contented
myself with little and believed in humility.

I silenced nearly every appeal within me. I let regard for others govern
and restrain me. I still feel how the imperious look of an unforgettable
passerby once tore me; the rude superior deprecation in that look was
like a cry rising above the night. Several indifferent persons were
about me, my spirit fixed upon them. Perhaps it was the last of my life
which a stranger mercilessly carried off in the depths of his being. I
let him pass.

       *       *       *       *       *

I believed myself beautiful. Beauty is a promise which no woman has ever
kept. I have seen my features in the glass, but I have not looked for
the mission to which I was appointed. What human being ever perceives
that he wears a distinctive badge?

The wind redoubles in strength and howls in the face of the sky. The
rain-spout near the window is choking, the drops rap-tap-tap on the
pane: "What have you done? What have you done?"

Lord, I am looking myself in the face. While waiting for the light to
appear and the clouds to scatter, for the damp air to shine between the
drops of sunlight, for the good genius who must teach us to grow old,
for the inaccessible perfection for which I was built, I look and look
at myself....

       *       *       *       *       *

I went to the window to watch the storm and smoothe my hair. Leaning
toward the mirror it was God I found.

God is there, I see Him approaching when I approach and smiling when I
smile, God who carries me and whom I carry, God palpitating with faith,
God who lowers His head....

I believe in myself.


XVI

I cannot sleep.

There's no good-bye to say, it is late, everything is ready, and yet I
am stifling in this empty room, which lives only through my sleeping son
and me.

But he sleeps....

I hardly recognize him when he sleeps, and I have to go close to him. He
fell asleep a moment ago and is lying exactly the way I placed him, with
his arm outstretched. Is there anything tenderer and frailer to behold
than this little rounded face with its fine veins and pearly curves?
Beneath his sleep and the warmth of his cheeks, life is working, and
what a hurry it is in!

I lean down closer, almost touching the fine down of gold on his
forehead, his velvety warmth, his scarcely perceptible breath. As
always, I feel both terrified and transported by this immense
littleness, and consumed by a longing to put my lips to him.... I draw
back: I must not wake him up.

       *       *       *       *       *

I move away from the crib. The will to question the present which is
passing takes a stronger hold of me this evening than usual.

No, it is not to you I turn, my child.

The best in me, the true, God, and my soul do not concern you.

Perhaps I am too hasty in saying this. Perhaps I have paid too much
attention to the gulf between my generation and the old blind
generation. Probably the gulf between your generation and mine is not so
deep, but when I look carefully I do not find that you are the profound
motive.

Nothing holds out the promise that in the future we can really give each
other a single day. When I look at you, I am astonished that I gave you
life--it is such a miracle to have caused a creature to live. I am at
the verge of the space separating us. I do not find you there. I go my
way, you go your opposite way, and though there be nothing impossible in
the world, our mutual understanding is impossible. I shall never attain
to your height.

You were born to contradict, since you must surpass, the palpitating
question that I am, my acts, their purpose. You, whom I carried in my
womb nine months, will never be anything but a stranger in my wet eyes
and to the kisses of my lips, a stranger who departs with my blood in
his veins.

You have come. But I did not sink into the fatal pit that engulfs
mothers, the inevitable snare. It's so hard to resist the weak little
thing which can't talk. How can you be expected to resist? A woman
eclipses herself for the sake of the child she brings into the world,
and at the first cry, the mother is in danger. It is the mother we
should try to save. There's no need to be afraid that the
mother-instinct will cool off. The earth will cool off sooner!

To have children. Love is born with them, but love is not enough. And to
try with all your might to fulfill your own destiny. And misfortune if
the children fall behind!

Sleep, my little one....

       *       *       *       *       *

I have opened the window; the night breathes upon my face. In the wide
outdoors, where the darkness is naked and the freshness is blue, the
expanse opens out like a river. Below, the clustered houses--a sombre
vegetation, a confused, winking mass, a starry profundity, vast and
chaotic, with no boundary lines between city and sky.

My eyes look tranquilly upon the black future piled up at my feet. My
eyes are no longer restless, because now I know for all time what the
future holds. I know that soon I shall be tired and go to sleep, and
when I wake up in the white daylight my son will put his arms round my
neck so prettily. I will smile, then the time for parting will come. The
hidden days contain the unknown.... But forever and ever it will be
suffering.

The future is not a question you ask; it is the suffering that awaits
you. Suffering is the answer to every question, and every instant claws
the flesh. If you listen intently, you will hear that the echo of
everything is a sob.

It is suffering. Suffering does not find a vent, it does not bleed in
any cry, it clings to you, and nothing reveals it because it is
omnipresent, so present and so plain that you can't look for or find it.
It is not the tears choking your throat, nor the groan at night, nor the
knell of a parting footstep, nor the mourning which stifles you, nor the
heart in your breast, for that would be too little. When suffering
begins with exuberant sunshine and mornings like a flourish of trumpets,
it is even more terrible because it is further away.... Suffering is
more. It is unlike anything else. It is regular, steady as the breath,
amazing, tolerable, and it is not the last word you say, it is also the
first word; it follows its mortal, monotonous course, and you realize it
has no name: to _live_ is to suffer.

Is it human misery? No, human suffering. Stammering nights, groping
footsteps. Whither and why? No, there's no time to lose, you jump up and
go, go, because you haven't suffered enough yet. Look.

When I leave to-morrow with my suffering in my breast I shall go in
advance of suffering. I shall not hesitate in the doorway. Looking back
into the room I shall not say what I have often said: "You are a bit of
myself, good-bye. Since my eyes will no longer be here to see you, give
them a picture of yourself to take along."

Suffering is self-sufficient. You don't associate things with it, I
shall have my back turned, my body will be impatient to lean forward. I
no longer care for memories.

       *       *       *       *       *

Not one. Not even the memory of you, my two dead lovers. Other dead are
further on, where I am going, or rather, other suffering. And your
suffering is over because you are dead.

The pictures I have of you rise less and less frequently in my memory.
How I cherished them at first! Some especially.... That little
station-platform where we met ... the transparent morning flew ahead of
your footsteps, the spring was intoxicated, I ran into your outstretched
arms.... And the path where I cried, the sunset sinking away between the
branches, my head grazing your shoulder like a fruit falling from the
tree.... And another.... And another....

It is over. I carry you differently. Some of your ways, which I
acquired, stick to me from habit. My voice often has your inflection,
and when I am animated I feel I have made some of your ideas my own. If
I don't remember you so clearly, it is because I _live_ you and the
legacy you left me rises and falls with my breathing.

In my fierce survival I have preserved only what is of use to me. All
the rest has decomposed; it is nothing to me any more. We should break
away from this burden of the dead. The dead are the living who have
abandoned us, and sooner or later, whether we wish to or not, we forget
them.

       *       *       *       *       *

I loved my dead dearly, so dearly that it seemed to me my being inclined
towards them the moment they appeared--so dearly that because of them,
who have gone, love has remained.

Love proclaims its law. You must show your love, it cries.

Somewhere in the world to-night there are faces lying dormant for me,
persons to whom I have things to say. I am waiting for them, I stretch
my arms out to them, I know they will come because of my need for
embraces, a desire for caresses, so strong to-night that I jump up with
a start. It is as if half of my body were missing. I see myself deserted
and frightfully widowed, and my mouth quivers with hunger and thirst for
another mouth.

I know a man is on the way. I shall recognize him. I shall have the
somewhat bitter audacity you must have in order to confess yourself the
immense thing you are. I shall stir him, I shall do everything; you can
go the full lengths of the sublime that dwells within you.

As soon as he will rise above the horizon he will realize from my mere
expression that I have long lost the trick of lying.

And when I read the first glance he gives me, when desire bewilders him
a little and forces him back within himself, I shall be happy to be
beautiful. Beneath his eyes my sound healthy self will brace up again,
my inexhaustible twenty-seven years, my rounded limbs, everything which
goes slightly to pieces when love is absent. Here is the offering,
blond, slim, laughing, which I already present to you.... He will
perceive uncomprehendingly that if I am a little more beautiful than
myself, it is because by virtue of loving one comes to resemble the love
one feels.

When he will have looked at me long, I will explain what each of my
features means; I will speak. Because silence is beautiful after the
last words, and it is the woman who has the most to say.

I may have a stronger expression than other women, perhaps a slightly
more taciturn expression, too. My solitude would account for this. Women
are not sufficiently alive to the fact that one should live alone,
depart alone, and return alone, and that there is no one outside one's
self. No one. In going to meet love again, I who have been twice widowed
and have my child to make me feel more isolated, shall find nothing but
another solitude. To be sure, there will be kisses, meetings, a symphony
of voices. Yet in spite of everything to know you're alone, all the
time....

All the time....

If I had reached this secure kingdom through my own power I should be
very proud. But I don't deserve the credit. My dead lovers gave me this
awful superhuman gift. For there comes a moment when you have taken from
some one else everything there was to be taken. Without his noticing he
becomes useless, he must disappear. Who resigns himself to this?

My lovers bestowed upon me the love I was capable of, attentive and
complete, they bestowed upon me the intelligence of my blood, my tears
and my words.... And then they gave me up. They performed this supreme
deed.

And now when enlarged by love I desire love again, I give it its place.
Love is not the essential thing. I have often said: "Life, my life." The
phrase has assumed the shape of my lips because it says the essential
thing. Love, after all is nothing but the most beautiful moment.

I summon all the moments of my life. Even the least thrilling cling just
as deeply by roots of flesh.

Life wishes to become what it never has been: It is ready, it is
empty.... Until to-night human words filled it saying:

"Nothing changes here below; nothing can possibly change: love goes on
from age to age, death was and will be, life is forever the same, and
man is always man." To express this the word "eternal" has been
invented.

I do not know. I came, I, a woman, and like every other creature, I too
began by loving. Life was _not_ the same, I swear it was not the same.
Life had a different taste, I shouldered it differently, and my death,
while resembling other deaths, does not exist by the same idea.

I am; everything is changed.

And even if I had never lived, other women are ready to change the
earth. You can't tell yet what the women of my generation are capable
of. They themselves don't know altogether.

The memory of what they have always been told weighs upon them. Man is a
fierce, greedy lover. With bloodshot eyes like a blind man, he has
fallen upon the feverish couch where lies the vanquished enemy. He has
brought his boiling sap, and between his clasped arms a great
tenderness. When he has risen from the couch, he has been sad, his eyes
have been wasted, his tenderness worn out. And he has said: "This is
woman."

This has lasted long. I do not know if there hasn't been some reason for
it. I simply say I live. I am honest, exact, I have muscles of steel, I
like people to say what is, I am loyal, willing, I earn my living, and I
am inured to suffering. What truth does one fail to recognize when it
shows its face?

I think. I want. I know.

It has taken me a long time to take in the humble things I now know. I
commenced with very little; my youth passed in chaos, I had to suffer
very much. So it is not chance, random truths that I follow. I do not
set limits to them. Even my death will not disprove them. Thus, a few
scattered fragments hover. I snatched and caught them in moments of
alert intelligence, I held them fast with my willing heart, I gripped
them between clenched teeth to keep from losing them.

       *       *       *       *       *

The wind rises on the right. Is it not the wind that has extinguished
those dots of gold, the houses, without deepening the dark of the town?

I see the wind, it is blowing near. And here, immobile, upright in my
heavy rectitude, I share with the wind the moments which are driving it
on. One by one. I fly with them, one by one.

I go where they are going, even elsewhere, and my death perhaps is far
from reaching its limits. It has been on the way a long time, it will
stop when I am completely tired out, when there will be nothing more for
me to do, when my breath will not be an indispensable breath. Then that
will be all. They say it is hard to die. Does that mean that the world
holds something more tragic than life?

The wind has swollen the whole sky. The sky is ready to drop down from
on high--ah, let the sky fall! The wind pins itself to my face. It has
become so violent that I cross my arms on my breast to brave it. The
infinite future, as though it too were swollen, approaches the houses.

How can I tell what the future holds? No use searching the violet depths
of the horizon or breathing in the whole of the sky. The times to come
are beyond my reach. They give no sign.

There, below, all I see is my own existence. But how I see it! Flashing,
assiduous, full of free spaces, brooding, crimson in my veins, paling
slightly at the horizon, departing in the starless wind, and returning
in haste to my limbs.

The woof of the night has changed color again.

Can it be that what I am is a promise of something that should be?

       *       *       *       *       *

The wind blows stronger.

No, it is not for nothing that to-night I am drawing a deeper breath
than on all other nights, a breath stronger than my strength, rising up
over my life.

Night passes, as pure as a summoning voice.

Then it must be, Lord, that soon, perhaps at dawn, you must go further
than your journey and, in flashes of your being, reach heights higher
than everything you have said, live to the last drop of your blood, live
more than life?

Here I am.


THE END





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About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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