Paul Sourdière had just taken a nap.
Sprawled, legs open, across a bamboo lounge chair, head propped up on a rubber cushion, he vaguely gazed at the vast room bathed in chiaroscuro; outside an atrocious heat blazed in thin bands of light through the slats of the shutters; a draft, established in the staircase by a whole set of open windows, cooled the room a little, but the mosquitoes had badly treated him the day before in the restaurant, and the bites still stung his forehead and temples. No matter how much he used glycerin, Gorlier water, menthol petroleum jelly and even[Pg 39] sublimated cut off with water, the redness persisted, inflamed and burning, and the young man swore that he would not be taken back anytime soon to go to dinner in the evening by the sea.
The sight of the bed, clouded with long draperies of white tulle, promised him at least the tranquility of the next night. It was a new model of mosquito net. He was going to inaugurate it that very evening. He got it from Princess Outcharewska, an old Englishwoman married late to a Russian and who had lived in the great Indies for a long time. Princess Outcharewska spent her winters in Cairo and her summers in Nice, she arrived there at the end of April and did not leave until around October 15.
“They are much worse in Biarritz,” she had said in a way of consolation to the young man, “the mosquitoes of the Basque coast are the most terrible in Europe. Ferocious in Biarritz, they are bloodthirsty in Saint-Sébastien; the blood of bullfights makes them panic.
The princess amused Paul Sourdière by[Pg 40] the unforeseen of his physiological observations about everything and everything, on manners and on plants, on climates and on men, on mosquitoes and bullfights. We ate at her house strange and somewhat repulsive dishes, but of a persistent and curious flavor. The princess had traveled a lot, even rolled a lot, and had brought back from so many countries traveled culinary recipes, formulas of ointments, balms and aromatic wines and even make-up and powders which, on the days when her chemistry succeeded, gave him a camellia skin; but the princess did not succeed every day. It was his maid who had cut the mosquito net herself, which the young man was delighted with. The trepidation of an automobile made the gravel of the garden scream, the door bell announced a visitor; and, terrifically annoyed by the setback, Paul Sourdière got up from his chaise longue and, walking, barefoot, as far as the landing:
-Who is here? he asked, leaning over the heavy banister of the stairs.
“She’s a lady,” said the valet, holding out a card.
And Paul Sourdière, having picked up the card, read in amazement the name of Miss Eva Waston.
Miss EVA WASTON
Les Estérais Peïra-Cava.
“And you said I was there?”
The valet was silent.
“And the deposit! Did I say, yes or no, that I was never there, and for no one?
“But a lady and such a pretty lady!” objected the servant.
“And the automobile that imposes it on you. They are all like that. As soon as they see a Panhard, they would sell you and the house. It’s good. Where did you bring him in?
“But in the small living room.
“Pass her into the dining room. At least there are some fresh flowers there. Open one of the shutters that you can see there, and come down quickly to apologize. I come, and to the office some orangeade, beer and cold coffee. ”
Miss Eva Waston! Who earned him the honor of this visit? He barely knew the American billionaire from having met her at hoops and charity parties, and not often, in two winters, barely five or six times. He was neither of his world nor of his group. Enraged flirtatious, accomplished sportswoman, woman of all records, the only time he had seen her close (he had even been introduced to her) was aboard the Malfia , Sir Humfrey Bordonn’s yacht. . Miss Eva Waston did not even attend tennis, where he sometimes ventured. He turned the small card over between his fingers, foreseeing great boredom in this visit. He had spoken of her thoughtlessly the other night at the restaurant, and her[Pg 43] conversation had surely been reported. He knew the young girl was bold, deliberate, and capable of a step. His situation was getting ridiculous, and he once again cursed his reckless habit of speaking loudly in public. He quickly donned a white pique suit over a pale blue batiste shirt, and, in a linen tie of the same color, shod in gray deerskin, he went down to the dining room. Miss Eva Waston was waiting for him there, standing in the light ray of the half-open shutter. He recognized her from the threshold. It was indeed her yellow silk hair, both fluffy and smooth, twisted like a cable at the back of her neck. She had removed the large gauze veil from her fireside cap, and, enormous glasses in her hand, was absorbed in contemplation of the Buddha from the fireplace. His pink face, animated by the race and all damp with heat, illuminated the whole room; her dust cover open over an ecru batiste dress, she enlivened the vast dark room with the suppleness of a stem and the light of a flower.
“Very beautiful, this Buddha, and very rare! You can believe me, I was brought up in India, said the American, hardly turning his head towards the young man. You have a museum piece there.
And, doing a sudden about-face.
“I shouldn’t be shaking my hand; but I want to remember that you were introduced to me, and then I am at your place, in short, and see, I do not have a whip, because it is with a whip that I would have come if I were not not engaged, and I don’t want a business between Gennaro and you. ”
She had extended two fingers to Sourdière and had quickly withdrawn them. She looked him straight in the eye.
“They say you are very intelligent, sir, and I was just asking to believe it. Why are you peddling nonsense about my marriage?
“Don’t make your situation worse. It is unworthy to defend oneself. Will you allow me to sit down?
And the young man, confused by his forgetfulness, moved an armchair forward.
And, when Miss Eva was comfortably installed, both arms on the armrests.
“Do you want to cool off? asked Sourdière, dazed by this aplomb; it is a heat!
“I was going to ask you. You are smart sometimes.
-What would you like? Orangeade, cold coffee, beer?
“Very hot tea with lemon would be better; but I like cold coffee just as much. ”
The young man was pressing on a stamp, and, when the valet de chambre had put down the tray:
“In truth,” said Miss Waston, dipping her lips in the drink, “your home is quite comfortable, and you are a nice fellow; but why are you peddling nonsense about me?
-Oh! miss, we exaggerated, I swear.
“No, your words were reported to me the very next day. Someone made the trip to Peïra-Cava on purpose, six hours of diligence under the sun; but they thought they were upsetting me so much, they expected so much the disappointment of my poor face. Well! no, my aunt alone was outraged, I burst out laughing, I even laughed to tears, the story was very funny, but so unworthy of you and me. I like to think it didn’t come to you from the regiment; it would then be an odious thing, a plot directed against M. Olivari, and M. Olivari would not take it with a laugh. He’s a man. ”
And his gaze had a steely glow.
Sourdière, taken aback, could find nothing to say.
“I see you are very annoyed, sir.
“Indeed, mademoiselle, I am especially sorry.
-We always regret the nonsense, once[Pg 47] do. Fixing them is more difficult, and you have to fix yours.
“But with all my heart.
-Oh! the heart is not enough, it takes will and skill. It is for all this that I have come to you, to help you repair. You have started the silly story, too bad for you: you will now start the real one, and you will use nothing more than that. You have wit, we will listen to you. More coffee, please? ”
And when the young man had served the young girl:
“Do you have an hour to give me?”
-More! All day, all my evening!
“No, an hour will be enough. Will you do me a favor? Pass me one of those magnolia blossoms. Their smell revives and intoxicates. ”
The young man stood up and offered the rigid spray of glazed leaves and enormous chalices directly from the Persian vase. The American took a flower, pushed aside its heavy fleshy petals and inhaled it for a long time:
“I’m not marrying Mr. Olivari just for his looks. It is true that, without his physique, I would not have married him. We are very practical in America and we give nothing for nothing. Or we marry a man for his fortune, and then it doesn’t matter whether he’s young, handsome, old, or ugly. The important thing is that he is smart to keep his millions and acquire more. And it is the marriage of convenience, unreasonable in my opinion, since everything is sacrificed. Or we marry a title and a name, and it’s a French duke, a Spanish marquess, or an Austrian prince; we only demand an ancient nobility and a decorative physique. We have come back a lot, back home, from these kinds of marriages. Your great lords of Europe have been really in debt for too many centuries, they have lost the habit of paying cash. Our dollars, wherever they come from, run around the world. Crossed the sea, the word of your titled marryers is worth nothing. We prefer at this price[Pg 49] remain girls or else we marry a man we like; and it is my case and it is the most aristocratic of marriages, because it demands from a woman a great fortune, will and an independence warned by sagacity and observation. This marriage is only allowed to the elite. Oh! you can greet, I know very well what I am worth.
I marry Mr. Olivari for his physique and a few other qualities. It is true that two weeks ago, at such an hour, I had no idea that it existed. His company arrived in Les Estérais, and it was only an hour later that the greatest chance had it that a badly closed door, opened by a draft, made him appear in his tub. The detail of the shirt is invented. Mr. Olivari did not have one. I say it without shame. It was the vision of a Sicilian shepherd who would have had mustaches; I know my authors and I own a few Museums. We Americans travel a lot; Naples and Pompeii make us a[Pg 50] very refined aesthetic. I have seen the Somalis who are the most beautiful men in the world, the coolies of the Himalayas, who are purebred, and the young people of Taormina, whom the German Hellenists compare to the Greek ephebes. I have seen the gypsy dancers dancing in Triana and in the caves of Granada, whose curves are said to be impeccable; and you know that the horse-guards of HM Edward VII walk through the streets of London the most beautiful specimens of human stallions. So Mr. Olivari’s nudity taught me nothing, but it did confirm some memories. Do not cry out. A diligent student at Atelier Julian knows just as much as I do.
Another reason which decided me to this marriage, it is the nationality even of my fiance: I marry Mr. Olivari, because he is Corsican. The Corsican, he does not take his word. He is loyal, necessarily jealous, with an almost extravagant pride, he does not hear jokes either on loyalty or honor, he loves until death,[Pg 51] to the knife and to the gun; and I like it enough, in the midst of the sluggishness of a time when adultery is allowed and all scandals tolerated, to feel near oneself a supple and pretty human beast who will not admit any jokes in my behavior and will not suffer no accentuated flirtation even from a prince or a grand duke.
Real joy, you see, is being dominated in love, and when you have my dowry, all husbands are at your feet. With M. Olivari, at the slightest whim of the slightest prank, I will have the thrill of death.
“And you are a devotee of all the thrills,” the voice of Sourdière nuanced, which had become ironic.
“I’m a musician,” the young girl replied, evading the question.
“You will tell me so much. And you think a Corsican …
-I believe. I spent three weeks in Ajaccio. The other winter I was there with Flossie[Pg 52] Foxland. Poor child! the climate did not prevent her from dying in Florence in April. She was extravagant and whimsical and even more spoiled than me. Her mother knew she was doomed and put up with all her whims. Ajaccio is not exactly a sporty stay; but the bay is admirable there, and nowhere have I seen a light so soft and so subdued. This light is a caress for the eye. Is it the reflection of the snows of Mont-d’Oro or the green velvet of so many fir trees! It is the blue lighting of the most ingenious decorations of Carré; the landscape takes on an indescribable melancholy; it is a pleasure to feel alive there and even to see it die!
We were in a large hotel, the name of which I will not tell you, because the table is rather mediocre, but which commands a dream panorama; and, all our days, we spent them in the car. You know the prescription of modern medicine: air, fresh air and always air.
The driver in the car, which had been ordered from the hotel on day one, displeased Flossie. She wanted to go and choose another one herself at the station, in the square. She wanted it and she did. The elected coachman was called Antonio. He was a tall boy, lean as a cudgel, with full eyebrows and jet-black eyes. His patter amused us a week. When we returned from our excursions, Flossie would stop the car in front of the pastry chefs in the city, go down there to quibble over candied fruit and stuff the bewildered coachman with cakes; she wore them herself to the boy who remained in her seat, to the great scandal of the whole street. When she had had enough of that one, she took another, one named Beppo, short and stocky like a pug, and red like a Venetian; and then it was Bartholomeo’s turn, that one, I admit, the prettiest coachman in the whole country, and that she took at a high price from an old Englishwoman … I say at a high price, translate by increasing the tips. They[Pg 54] are never very big in Corsica, and all this with all due honor. But that crazy Flossie child had counted without the native character. Each of the coachmen had mounted their heads on the young and rich client.
One day, at the time of the walk, as we were leaving the hotel, instead of our car, we found the three coachmen assembled. Along Antonio, fat Beppo and pretty Bartholomew were there, concerted, and I immediately saw that our business was going badly.
They approached us politely, hats low, and ordered Flossie to choose between the three of them. At first, my dumbfounded friend giggled, but, when they had drawn their knife and declared that they would settle the quarrel between them if she did not make up her mind, when they warned her that the man chosen by her would have to fighting with the other two, poor Flossie changed color and slipped into my arms. We brought her back to the hotel unconscious.
I calmed the coachmen with twenty francs, but we had to leave Ajaccio that same evening and with the greatest precautions. We were taken to the station in the omnibus of another hotel. This quarrel caused a scandal, and the United States consulate unofficially asked us to leave.
Well, this little algarade gave me the best opinion of the Corsican character. Here are people who do not suffer to be made fun of and do not admit that they are taken and then let go like petticoat accessories.
—Petillon accessory is hard on a husband.
“That’s my opinion, and that’s why I’m marrying Mr. Gennaro Olivari.
The young girl got up:
“Believe I have other reasons, Mr. Olivari has the most beautiful eyes in the world.