There are weak, passionate and lofty souls who cannot sacrifice their desires and do not know how to deny their ideal. Their life of feeling is a strange alternation of falls and redemptions, unworthy indulgences and heroic abnegations.
A fault is redeemed by a voluntarily imposed martyrdom; and today a good work repairs the error of yesterday. They want to tear out their right eye and enter the kingdom of God only mutilated. What they cannot wrest away is the need for violent and personal emotions that make their hearts an involuntary and painful abyss of selfishness.
Gabrielle-Dante Rosetti .
Sourdière had received the volume with the passage underlined; a note from Princess Outcharewska begged him to read it and invited him to accompany him to Cabane-Vieilles, between the Authion and Turini.
He would attend with her the maneuvers of the A against the B, the last operations of the two army corps at the moment in the Alps. General de Brusselard, who had dined at her house the day before, had kindly been kind enough to inform her half of the plans for the day. From the heights of the Authion they would certainly witness the attack of the Calmettes and the assault on Peïra-Cava. The descent of Mangiabo by the A, with all the alpine companies on its slopes, would be worth the trip in itself. Would he like to be his companion on this excursion? She had a word from General de Brusselard as a priority and could cross all the lines.
Sourdière had accepted.
For eight days he had crossed in the woods[Pg 128] steps and counter-steps of the two parties and that, in his walks from Lucéram to the Moulinet, he surprised the bivouacs of the Alps or the dismantling of artillery pieces in the clearings of the forest or the small places of the villages, he had ended up by to be interested in the adventures and alternatives of the small war.
In turn passionate about the A’s or the B’s, at random encounters, for eight days he photographed them relentlessly in all the attitudes and in all the settings of their harsh army life in the countryside. His pictures would have made the fortune of a postcard publisher. So he took his kodak with him; and when the princess’s victoria came to pick him up at the hotel, he did not keep her waiting.
General de Brusselard had indicated a campaign plan, which the B leader, Colonel Astié, had foiled. The princess and Sourdière had found no one at Cabane-Vieille; a night march had left the slopes of the Authion and the forest of Turini deserted.[Pg 129] From the abandoned barracks, between which they walked, they plunged into the three ravines where the Bévera valley dies. The high grassy slopes of Mangiabo are also deserted. Up to the foot of the thick buttress, behind which shelter the houses of the Moulinet, mountains and ravines descended abruptly; a vast funnel of rocks and pastures, only yesterday populated by a swarming and motley crowd of soldiers and, since their departure, haunted by a strange and poignant loneliness.
Distant shootings on the Escarenne side broke out at rare intervals; the weft of silence was torn like silk; but, a minute later, the thousand hums of insects and grasses weaved it again faster and more sonorous with their innumerable quivers. The princess felt a dreadful sadness weigh in her.
The silence of the mountain, this intoxication of nature made up of the motionless dream of the peaks and the joy of the wind, the intoxication of the insect and the[Pg 130] perennial momentum of the stems, hugged the old Englishwoman to the heart. She had heard too much, in the preceding days, the familiar and joyful noises of the companies camped out in the open: the cries of the men around the laundry and the kitchens; neighing mules at the watering hole; hurrahs of the troops at soup hour; quarrels quickly died down around the canteens, and orders from superiors. Cabane-Vieille and the disarray of its empty barracks gave it the pain of solitude; she and Sourdière went down to Turini. There at least, under the high branches of the pines crossed by the sun, they would find the gaiety of the little officers’ restaurant and the large drinking trough, where the long wagons loaded with wood from the forest see their teams stop. This silence also reigned under the big trees, even more buzzing than on the heights; an intoxicating smell of thyme and lavender was given off in the heat; there too all the barracks were empty. The princess stopped near the trough.
-Gone! They’re gone, and, until next year, and I feel ten years older since they left. I have been coming for a walk here for twelve days, and each time I came with a new, hermetically veiled toilet. Oh! that naturally, but corseted, adjusted, shod, gloved and with what care, and all that, to please these soldiers! Oh! I knew very well that I had no illusions in the officers. These are from our horrible world; they number the exact date of any woman’s wrinkle; but for these men of the people or of the mountain, for these humble and, let us say it, these brutes torn from their homes and enslaved, the poor beings, with this hard trade of road, my elegance made of me a woman; my silk underwear made me twenty years old. Clear of costume and complexion thanks to my makeup,[Pg 132] float around me an atmosphere of desires.
Desire! The only reason we have to live. To desire! what joy and what torture! But what intensity brought to our life! But to be desired, what intoxication and what pride! Now to be desired, for a woman, my friend, is not to grow old. The poet understood this well, who, making a blind lover speak to his old mistress, wrote these four bad lines:
And my eyes still see you beautiful,
The forehead clear as on the first day;
And your youth is eternal,
For eternal is my love.
The poetry is mediocre, but the thought of it is exquisite, and the few years that remain to me to live, my dear friend, I will preserve a tender gratitude to this forest where a few illusions helping, a lot of artifices too, that I will love. ‘confess, I found youth again and felt the delicious touch of love.
“What a dreamer you are! the writer couldn’t help but smile.
-And what a passionate too! This you can tell.
“Dreamy and passionate,” said the man of letters.
“It’s because I’ve lived so little.
-How? ‘Or’ What?
“Yes, I haven’t had a romantic life. Since the age of eighteen I have struggled, intrigued, led the life of a businessman. I told you before, I made my fortune. The enthusiasts will have lived; the reasonable will have lasted … Out of horror of poverty, I sacrificed everything to reach fortune. I own her, but I didn’t have love.
The princess was seated on a tree trunk.
“But you have the luxury, princess. You can’t have it all.
“Yes, I have luxury, a luxury in which I am a prisoner; a luxury that allows me the dress of Doucet, the jewel of Morgan, the installation of Nice and the whim of the summer villas in a[Pg 134] setting where you always find friends? But this luxury forbids me any whim, any fantasy, any realization of desire. He designated me as a prey to all low lusts, he taught me to doubt everyone and everything; he made me the lady who helmets . Oh! the horror of this word, helmet . Oh! how awful!
“It’s because you’re too careful, too, princess; too thoughtful and too political.
-I am English.
“With what pride you say that!
“But I have often regretted not having your Latin carelessness; yes, for it is frightful, in truth, to have both this frenzy of imagination and this odious coolness. Ah! this reflected coolness, this perpetual foresight of unfortunate probabilities. How this English side has ruined my life!
“Your love life?
-Naturally! So I told you, didn’t I, my unforeseen and violent adventure, twenty years ago, with this Sicilian or this Corsican,[Pg 135] this stranger who has disappeared without return? It was perhaps the most delicious and strongest feeling in my life. It was also the briefest. Well! I haven’t told you everything.
-How? ‘Or’ What! Was there a sequel?
-Yes and no. I saw this man again.
“But he didn’t see me again!
-How? ‘Or’ What?
-Here. Two days after my furtive and delirious abandonment of one evening, my gardener came to warn me that a man had been stubbornly prowling since morning in the bondage path, behind the great wall of the park. He was a rather bad-looking individual; he thought he had to warn me. I sent to see the valet. “He’s an Italian,” he told me, “a sailor of some tartane.” He is there, in the path, playing bowls with oranges. ” An Italian! I guessed it was him. I knew how to control myself enough not to run immediately to the little door. I waited for dusk. I there[Pg 136] went as if walking, through the aisles. But, arriving on the scene, I was careful not to open. I leaned down and looked through the keyhole. It was him. My Sicilian was there, watching the door that separated me from him. Standing with his arms crossed, with a fierce expression, he was no longer playing with his oranges. I wanted to throw myself against his chest and hug him with all my strength; I just looked at him. He returned like this for two days, and I also came back to contemplate him and be satisfied with his comings and goings, his ardent eyes and the strained impatience of his mouth. He prowled around like a beast. I was dying of both desire and regret. For two days it was the agony of one sex around another. The agony of a sex, the most beautiful definition I have ever read of love. Jasmines were raining on my head, like the evening of our embrace; like the famous evening, their smell made me faint. And, I did not open! He left without seeing me again.
“That’s what we call having character. My compliments, princess. ”
The princess rose from her makeshift seat and began to walk. With the end of her parasol she mowed wide strokes the blue bells of the campanulas and the pink petals of silenus.
“A character that doesn’t always keep me from the worst childishness and the most ridiculous. So, would you believe it, Sourdière, the other night I came back to wander alone in the moonlight among these barracks full of sleeping men. I had left my car a little above, on the road, and there, in the magic of the lunar forest, I listened to the strong breathing of the camp which rose, regular and rhythmic, in the night.
I had spent the whole day there and, like the day before and the day before, I had seen glances and glances light up in my footsteps. Oh! the delicious burn that certain eyes of men put on your skin! A woman[Pg 138] only can feel it. During the day, I had just crossed the bivouac at soup time; the soldiers, embloused with gray cloth, ate it seated on the back of the embankment, squatting in the grass or sprawling under the pines. Tanned by the sun and thin by the steps, they all offered fiery faces drawn from the road. An almost animal hunger kept them bent over their bowls, but I passed, and the scent of my underwear made their heads suddenly look up. A gleam filled all those eyes, and it was the looks of an animal that I felt fall on me; the moment was delicious, I seemed to be prowling among wild beasts … In front of the small restaurant, two lieutenants and a captain sneered, both insolent and pitiful, but their impertinence did not affect me.
I felt wanted by all these men. More than one, I said to myself, will surely dream of me tonight … And I came back, not to realize this dream, but to bring them the touch of my presence. Alone in the silver halo of which[Pg 139] the forest grew bigger, it seemed to me that I was drinking all these souls, all these half-liberated and floating souls during the enchantment of sleep. As a flood of kisses, like an incense of heat, ardor and caresses rose, it seemed to me, invisible to me. For a minute, by the will of all these desires I felt beautiful again. Yes, I knew then the proud intoxication of a Helena and a Cleopatra, Cleopatra on the Nile, Helena on the walls of Troy, these queens of imperishable beauty with ghosts evoked by the regret of males, and whose the split soul, because coveted and wanted after twenty abolished centuries, still haunts the sleep of poets and young men.
Cleopatra! Helen! Semiramis too, and, closer to us, the great courtesans. Imperia, the mistress of cardinals and popes, the lust of the Church and the flower of the Councils; Belcolore in Venice, and, under the Valois, the two Diana! to have made roar and bitch armies and kings and peoples of love and desires.
“And you didn’t even take pity on a guard man! Cleopatra, she would have relieved the sentry, princess.
—And sent the novelist Paul Sourdière to work at the Pyramids, the prison in the time of the Ptolemies. Cleopatra did not like insolent people. ”
The sound of broken branches, the hammering on the moss of a gallop of men, a whole company of alpine people rushed down the slopes of the Authion.
The princess and the novelist were getting back in the car.