“What do you think it can be that makes him so queer?”
“Perhaps something so commonplace that one simply doesn’t notice it.”
“Well, goodness, for instance.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that. It gives me a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
“You know it may not turn out so badly as you think. I’ve known two or three fellows, one in Spain and two in the East, who married whores and they made them very good wives. They were grateful to their husbands, for the security they gave them, I mean, and they of course knew what pleases a man.”
“You make me tired. D’you think I sacrificed myself to let Larry fall into the hands of a raging nymphomaniac?”
“How did you sacrifice yourself?”
“I gave Larry up for the one and only reason that I didn’t want to stand in his way.”
“Come off it, Isabel. You gave him up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat.”
The words were hardly out of my mouth when a plate of bread and butter came flying at my head. By sheer luck I caught the plate, but the bread and butter was scattered on the floor. I got up and put the plate back on the table.
“Your uncle Elliott wouldn’t have thanked you if you’d broken one of his Crown Derby plates. They were made for the third Duke of Dorset and they’re almost priceless.”
“Pick up the bread and butter,” she snapped.
“Pick it up yourself,” I said, seating myself again on the sofa.
She got up and, fuming, picked up the scattered pieces.
“And you call yourself an English gentleman,” she exclaimed, savagely.
“No, that’s a thing I’ve never done in all my life.”
“Get the hell out of here. I never want to see you again. I hate the sight of you.”
“I’m sorry for that, because the sight of you always gives me pleasure. Have you ever been told that your nose is exactly like that of the Psyche in the museum of Naples, and that’s the loveliest representation of Virginal beauty that ever existed. You’ve got exquisite legs, so long and shapely, and I never cease to be surprised at them, because they were thick and lumpy when you were a girl. I can’t imagine how you’ve managed it.”
“An iron will and the grace of God,” she said angrily.
“But of course your hands are your most fascinating feature. They’re so slim and so elegant.”
“I was under the impression you thought them too big.”
“Not for your height and build. I’m always amazed at the infinite grace with which you use them. Whether by nature or by art you never make a gesture without imparting beauty to it. They’re like flowers sometimes and sometimes like birds on the wing. They’re more expressive than any words you can say. They’re like the hands in El Greco’s portraits; in fact, when I look at them I’m almost inclined to believe Elliott’s highly improbable story of your having an ancestor who was a Spanish grandee.”
She looked up crossly.
“What are you talking about? That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
I told her about the Count de Lauria and Queen Mary’s maid of honour from whose issue in the female line Elliott traced his descent. Meanwhile Isabel contemplated her long fingers and her manicured, painted nails with complacency.
“One must be descended from someone,” she said. Then with a tiny chuckle, giving me a mischievous look in which no trace of rancour remained, she added, “You lousy bastard.”
So easy is it to make a woman see reason if you only tell her the truth.
“There are moments when I don’t positively dislike you,” said Isabel.
She came and sat on the sofa beside me and, slipping her arm through mine, leant over to kiss me. I withdrew my cheek.
“I will not have my face smeared with lipstick,” I said. “If you want to kiss me, kiss me on the lips, which is what a merciful Providence intended them for.”
She giggled and, her hand turning my head towards her, with her lips pressed a thin layer of paint on mine. The sensation was far from unpleasant.
I have never believed very much in women’s intuition; it fits in too neatly with what they want to believe to persuade me that it is trustworthy; and as I thought of the end of my long talk with Isabel I couldn't but laugh.
People who did not like him said he was a dealer, but this was a charge that he resented with indignation. He had taste and knowledge, and he did not mind admitting that in bygone years, when he first settled in Paris, he had given rich collectors who wanted to buy pictures the benefit of his advice; and when through his social connections he heard that some impoverished nobleman, English or French, was disposed to sell a picture of first-rate quality was glad to put him in touch with the directors of American museums who, he happened to know, were on the lookout for a fine example of such and such a master. There were many old families in France and some in England whose circumstances compelled them to part with a signed piece of Buhl or a writing table made by Chippendale himself if it could be done quietly, and they were glad to know a man of great culture and perfect manners who could arrange the matter with discretion. One would naturally suppose that Elliott profited by the transactions, but one was too well bred to mention it. Unkind people asserted that everything in his apartment was for sale and that after he had invited wealthy Americans to an excellent lunch, with vintage wines, one or two of his valuable drawings would disappear or a marquetry commode would be replaced by one in lacquer. When he was asked why a particular piece had vanished he very plausibly explained that he hadn’t thought it quite up to his mark and had exchanged it for one of much finer quality. He added that it was tiresome always to look at the same things.
It was on the return from one of these jaunts that I witnessed I a scene that somewhat startled me. We had been to Chartres and were on our way back to Paris. Gray was driving and Larry was sitting beside him; Isabel and I were at the back. We were tired after the long day. Larry sat with his arm stretched out along the top of the front seat. His shirt cuff was pulled back by his position and displayed his slim, strong wrist and the lower part of his brown arm lightly covered with fine hairs. The sun shone goldly upon them. Something in Isabel’s immobility attracted my attention, and I glanced at her. She was so still that you might have thought her hypnotized. Her breath was hurried. Her eyes were fixed on the sinewy wrist with its little golden hairs and on that long, delicate, but powerful hand, and I have never seen on a human countenance such a hungry' concupiscence as I saw then on hers. It was a mask of lust. I would never have believed that her beautiful features could assume an expression of such unbridled sensuality. It was animal rather than human. The beauty was stripped from her face; the look upon it made her hideous and frightening. It horribly suggested the bitch in heat and I felt rather sick. She was unconscious of my presence; she was conscious of nothing but the hand, lying along the rim so negligently, that filled her with frantic desire. Then as it were a spasm twitched across her face, she gave a shudder and shutting her eyes sank back into the corner of the car.
“Give me a cigarette,” she said in a voice I hardly recognized, it was so raucous.
I got one out of my case and lit it for her. She smoked it greedily. For the rest of the drive she looked out of the window and never said a word.
“She’s soused from morning till night. She goes to bed with every tough who asks her.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s bad. Quite a number of highly respected citizens get drunk and have a liking for rough trade. They’re bad habits, like biting one’s nails, but I don’t know that they’re worse than that. I call a person bad who lies and cheats and is unkind.”
“A mother only does her children harm if she makes them the only concern of her life.”
“Do you think any the worse of me for what I did?”
“Would you care?”
“Strange as it may seem to you, I would. I want you to think well of me.”
“My dear, I’m a very immoral person,” I answered. “When I’m really fond of anyone, though I deplore his wrongdoing it doesn’t make me less fond of him. You’re not a bad woman in your way and you have every grace and every charm. I don’t enjoy your beauty any the less because I know how much it owes to the happy combination of perfect taste and ruthless determination. You only lack one thing to make you completely enchanting.”
She smiled and waited.
I poured out the gin and the Noilly-Prat and added the dash of absinthe that transforms a dry Martini from a nondescript drink to one for which the gods of Olympus would undoubtedly have abandoned their home-brewed nectar, a beverage that I have always thought must have been rather like Coca-Cola.
“Uncle Elliott says he’s often been surprised at your power of observation. He says nothing much escapes you, but that your great asset as a writer is your common sense.”
“I can think of a quality that would be more valuable,” I answered dryly. “Talent, for instance.”
Then we went on to the Rue de Lappe. It is a dingy, narrow street and even as you enter it you get the impression of sordid lust. We went into a cafe. There was the usual young man, pale and dissipated, playing the piano, while another man, old and tired, scraped away on a fiddle and a third made discordant noise on a saxophone. The place was packed and it looked as though there wasn’t a vacant table, but the patron, seeing that we were customers with money to spend, unceremoniously turned a couple out, making them take seats at a table already occupied, and settled us down. The two persons who were hustled away did not take it well and they made remarks about us that were far from complimentary. A lot of people were dancing, sailors with the red pompon on their hats, men mostly with their caps on and handkerchiefs round their necks, women of mature age and young girls, painted to the eyes, bareheaded, in short skirts and coloured blouses. Men danced with podgy boys with made-up eyes; gaunt, hard-featured women danced with fat women with dyed hair; men danced with women. There was a frowst of smoke and liquor and of sweating bodies. The music went on interminably and that unsavoury mob proceeded round the room, the sweat shining on their faces, with a solemn intensity in which there was something horrible. There were a few big men of brutal aspect, but for the most part they were puny and ill-nourished. I watched the three who were playing. They might have been robots, so mechanical was their performance, and I asked myself if it was possible that at one time, when they were setting out, they had thought they might be musicians whom people would come from far to hear and to applaud. Even to play the violin badly you must take lessons and practice: did that fiddler go to all that trouble just to play fox trots till the small hours of the morning in that stinking squalor? The music stopped and the pianist wiped his face with a dirty handkerchief. The dancers slouched or sidled or squirmed back to their tables.
We reached the Avenue de Clichy and went into the Brasserie Graf. It was not long past midnight and it was crowded, but we found a table and ordered ourselves eggs and bacon.
It was getting late. The crowd had thinned out and only a few tables were occupied. The people who had been sitting there because they had nothing else to do had gone home. Those who had been to a play or a picture and had come to have a drink or a bite to eat had left. Now and then latecomers straggled in. I saw a tall man, evidently an Englishman, come in with a young rough. He had the long, washed-out face with thinning wavy hair of the British intellectual and evidently suffered from the delusion common to many that when you are abroad no one you know at home can possibly recognize you. The young rough greedily ate a great plate of sandwiches while his companion watched him with amused benevolence. What an appetite! I saw one man whom I knew by sight because we went to the same barber's at Nice. He was stout, elderly and gray-haired, with a puffy red face and heavy pouches under his eyes. He was a Middle Western banker who had left his native city after the crash rather than face an investigation. I do not know whether he had committed any crime; if he had, he was perhaps too small fry to put the authorities to the trouble of extraditing him. He had a pompous manner and the false heartiness of a cheap politician, but his eyes were frightened and unhappy. He was never quite drunk and never quite sober. He was always with some harlot who was obviously getting all she could out of him, and he was now with two painted middle-aged women who treated him with a mockery they didn’t trouble to conceal while he, only half understanding what they said, giggled fatuously. The gay life! I wondered if he wouldn't have done better to stay at home and take his medicine. One day women would have squeezed him dry and then there would be nothing left for him but the river or an overdose of veronal.
Between two and three there was a slight increase of custom and I supposed the night clubs were closing their doors. A bunch of young Americans strolled in, very drunk and noisy, but they didn’t stay long. Not far from us two fat, sombre women, tightly fitted into mannish clothes, sat side by side, drinking whiskies and sodas in gloomy silence. A party in evening dress put in an appearance, what they call in French gens du mond who had evidently been doing the rounds and now wanted a spot of supper to finish up with. They came and went. My curiosity had been excited by a little man, quietly dressed, who had been sitting there for an hour or more with a glass of beer in front of him reading the paper. He had a neat black beard and wore pince-nez. At last a woman came in and joined him. He gave her a nod devoid of friendliness and I conjectured that he was annoyed because she had kept him waiting. She was young, rather shabby, but heavily painted, and looked very tired. Presently I noticed her take something out of her bag and hand it to him. Money. He looked at it and his face darkened. He addressed her in words I could not hear, but from her manner I guessed they were abusive, and she seemed to be making excuses. Suddenly he leant over and gave her a resounding smack on the cheek. She gave a cry and began to sob. The manager, drawn by the disturbance, came up to see what was the matter. It looked as if he were telling them to get out if they couldn’t behave. The girl turned on him and shrilly, so that one heard every word, told him in foul language to mind his own business.
“If he slapped my face it's because I deserved it,” she cried.
Women! I had always thought that to live on a woman’s immoral earnings you must be a strapping flashy fellow with sex appeal, ready with your knife or your gun; it was astonishing that such a puny creature, who might have been a lawyer’s clerk from his appearance, could get a footing in such an overcrowded profession.
I have found myself in the course of my life in many strange situations. More than once I have been within a hair’s breadth of death. More than once I have touched hands with romance and known it. I have ridden a pony through Central Asia along the road that Marco Polo took to reach the fabulous lands of Cathay; I have drunk a glass of Russian tea in a prim parlour in Petrograd while a soft-spoken little man in a black coat and striped trousers told me how he had assassinated a grand duke; I have sat in a drawing-room in Westminster and listened to the serene geniality of a piano trio of Haydn’s while the bombs were crashing without; but I do not think I have ever found myself in a stranger situation than when I sat on the red-plush seats of that garish restaurant for hour after hour while Larry talked of God and eternity, of the Absolute and the weary wheel of endless becoming.
On this note of banter our conversation ended. I had noticed for some time that people were coming into the cafe with greater frequency. One man in evening dress sat down not far from us and ordered himself a substantial breakfast. He had the tired but satisfied mien of one who looks back upon a night of amorous dalliance with complacency, A few old gentlemen, early risers because old age needs little sleep, were drinking their cafe au hit with deliberation while through thick-lensed spectacles they read the morning paper. Younger men, some of them neat and spruce, others in threadbare coats, hurried in to devour a roll and swallow a cup of coffee on their way to a shop or an office. An old crone entered with a pile of newspapers and went around offering them for sale, vainly as far as I could see, at the various tables. I looked out of the great plate-glass windows and saw that it was broad daylight. A minute or two later the electric light was turned off except at the rear of the huge restaurant. I looked at my watch. It was past seven o’clock.
“I’m not going to sit by and let Larry ruin himself. I’ll stick at nothing to prevent him from marrying that slut.”
“You won’t succeed. You see, he’s enthralled by one of the most powerful emotions that can beset the human breast.”
“You don’t mean to say you think he’s in love with her?”
“No. That would be trifling in comparison.”
“Have you ever read the New Testament?”
“I suppose so.”
“D’you remember how Jesus was led into the wilderness and fasted forty days? Then, when he was a-hungered, the devil came to him and said: If thou be the son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But Jesus resisted the temptation. Then the devil set him on a pinnacle of the temple and said to him: If thou be the son of God, cast thyself down. For angels had charge of him and would bear him up. But again Jesus resisted. Then the devil took him into a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world and said that he would give them to him if he would fall down and worship him. But Jesus said: Get thee hence, Satan. That’s the end of the story according to the good simple Matthew. But it wasn’t. The devil was sly and he came to Jesus once more and said: If thou wilt accept shame and disgrace, scourging, a crown of thorns and death on the cross thou shalt save the human race, for greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Jesus fell. The devil laughed till his sides ached, for he knew the evil men would commit in the name of their redeemer.”
Isabel looked at me indignantly.
“Where on earth did you get that?”
“Nowhere. I’ve invented it on the spur of the moment.”
“I think it’s idiotic and blasphemous.”
“I only wanted to suggest to you that self-sacrifice is a passion so overwhelming that beside it even lust and hunger are trifling. It whirls its victim to destruction in the highest affirmation of his personality. The object doesn’t matter; it may be worth while or it may be worthless. No wine is so intoxicating, no love so shattering, no vice so compelling. When he sacrifices himself man for a moment is greater than God, for how can God, infinite and omnipotent, sacrifice himself? At best he can only sacrifice his only begotten son.”
“Oh, Christ, how you bore me,” said Isabel.
I paid no attention.
“How can you suppose that common sense or prudence will have any effect on Larry when he’s in the grip of a passion like that? You don’t know what he’s been seeking all these years. I don’t know either, I only suspect. All these years of labour, all these experiences he garnered weigh nothing in the balance now they’re set against his desire – oh, it’s more than a desire, his urgent, clamorous need to save the soul of a wanton woman whom he’d known as an innocent child. I think you’re right, I think he’s undertaking a hopeless job; with his acute sensibility he’ll suffer the tortures of the damned; his life’s work, whatever it may be, will remain undone. The ignoble Paris killed Achilles by shooting an arrow in his heel. Larry lacks just that touch of ruthlessness that even the saint must have to win his halo.”