An Indifferent Man
Madeleine de Gouvres had just arrived in Mme Lawrence's box. General de Buivres asked:
- Who are your gentlemen companions this evening? Avranches, Lepré? ...
- Avranches yes, replied Mme Lawrence. Lepré I didn't dare ask.
She added inclining towards Madeleine:
- She is so difficult to please, and as it would have meant making a new acquaintance for her...
Madeleine protested. She had met M. Lepré several times, and found him charming; on one occasion he had actually dined at her house.
- In any case, Mme Lawrence concluded, it should not be any cause of regret to you, he is very kind, but in no way remarkable, and of no interest to the most pampered woman in Paris. I can quite understand that the close friendships you have make you difficult to please.
Lepré is very kind but very insignificant, that was everybody's opinion. Madeleine felt that this was not entirely her own opinion and was astonished by it; but as Lepré's absence didn't cause her any great disappointment, her sympathy didn't really cause her any anxiety. In the audience heads were turning towards her; her friends were already coming to greet her and pay her their compliments. This was nothing new for her and yet, with the obscure clairvoyance of a jockey in a race or an actor during a performance, she felt her triumph more easily and more fully than usual. With no jewellery, her yellow tulle bodice was covered with cattleyas, and she had attached several cattleyas into her black hair which hung down from this dark tower in pale garlands of light. As cool and pensive as her flowers she brought to mind Pierre Loti and Reynaldo Hahn's Mahénu by the Polynesian charm of her hairdo. Presently, along with the successful indifference with which she expressed her favours this evening in her sparkling eyes which reflected them with a sure faithfulness was mixed the regret that Lepré was not here to see her like this.
- How she loves flowers, exclaimed Mme Lawrence, looking at her bodice.
Indeed she did love them, in the vulgar sense that she knew how beautiful they were, and how much they made her appear beautiful. She loved their beauty, their gaiety, their sadness too, but externally like one of the attitudes of their beauty. When they were no longer fresh she discarded them like an old dress. - Suddenly, during the first interval, Madeleine spotted Lepré in the orchestra a few moments after general Buivres and the duke and duchess d'Aleriouvres took their leave, leaving her alone with Mme Lawrence. Madeleine saw that Lepré was coming towards their box:
- Madame Lawrence, she said, would you permit me to invite M. Lepré to stay with us since he is alone in the orchestra?
- Certainly, since I am going to have to leave in a moment my dear; you remember you have already given me permission. Robert is a little unwell. - Would you like me to ask him?
- No I would prefer to do it myself.
Throughout the interval Madeleine let Lepré chat with Mme Lawrence the whole time. Leaning over the edge of the box and looking across the hall, she affected not to take any notice of them, sure of being able to make better advantage of his presence in a few moments when they would be alone together.
Mme Lawrence left to go and get her coat.
- Would you like to stay with me for the next act, said Madeleine with indifferent civility.
- You are very kind Madame, but I'm afraid I can't, I have to go.
- But I will be all alone, said Madeleine in a pressing voice; but suddenly, almost unconsciously as if wishing to apply the coquettish maxim as in the well known phrase: "If I don't love you, you will love me", she replied:
- You are quite right, and if you are expected, don't make yourself late. Goodbye Monsieur.
She tried to compensate for the harshness which seemed to be implied in giving her permission in this way by the sweetness of her smile. But this harshness was only relative to the violent desire to keep him there, to the bitterness of her disappointment. Had it been directed at anybody else this advice to leave would have been quite amiable.
Mme Lawrence came back.
- Well, he's leaving. I'll stay with you so that you won't be on your own. Did you say your tender farewells?
- I hear that at the end of this week he is going on a long voyage to Italy, Greece and Asia Minor.
A child who has been breathing since his birth without thinking about it, does not realize how essential to his life is the air which gently swells his breast and which he never even notices. How he suffocates in an attack of fever, during a convulsion. With all the desperate effort of his being, it is almost for his life that he struggles, it is for the lost tranquillity which he can only regain with the air which he never dreamed he could be separated from.
In the same way, at the moment when Madeleine learned of Lepré's departure, which she had never imagined, she understood, realizing all that had now been torn away from her, what had taken place in herself. And she looked at Mme Lawrence with a forlorn and gentle dejection without wanting anything more from her than the poor suffering invalid does the asthma that chokes him and who, with tear filled eyes, smiles at those who pity him without being able to help him. Suddenly she got up:
- Come on my dear friend, I don't want to make you late.
While she was putting on her coat she spotted Lepré and, in the anguish of letting him go without seeing him again, she quickly went down.
- I am heartbroken that M. Lepré could have thought that I was displeased with him, especially as he is leaving.
- But he never said that, replied Mme Lawrence.
- But since you assume that maybe he does too.
- Not in the slightest.
- But I am telling you so, replied Madeleine firmly. And as they had now rejoined Lepré:
- Monsieur Lepré, I will expect you for dinner on Thursday at eight o'clock.
- I'm not free on Thursday, Madame.
- Friday then?
- I'm not free then either.
- Very well, Saturday.
- But darling, you're forgetting that you dine at princess d'Avranche's on a Saturday.
- It can't be helped. I shall cancel.
- Oh Madame! I wouldn't want that, said Lepré.
- It's what I want, cried Madeleine beside herself. I certainly won't go to Fanny's. I never had any intention of going.
When she got home as Madeleine slowly undressed she recalled the evening's events. When she reached the moment when Lepré had refused to stay with her for the last act she blushed with humiliation. The most elementary coquettishness, like the most severe dignity should have compelled her to affect an extreme coldness towards him after that. And instead of that, her triple invitation on the staircase! Filled with indignation she threw up her head and appearing full in the mirror, she looked so beautiful that she no longer doubted that he would love her. Anxious and forlorn over his imminent departure, she imagined the tenderness which, for some reason she could not understand, he wished to hide from her. He was going to make his confession to her, perhaps in a letter, at any moment, and without doubt he will delay his departure, take her with him ...How? ... she must not think about it. But she could see his handsome loving face coming up close to hers, asking for her pardon. "Naughty!" she would say. - But then again maybe he didn't love her yet; he would leave before having time to fall in love with her ... Grief stricken, she hung her head and her gaze fell on the most languishing of the wilted flowers on her bodice, which beneath their withered eyelids seemed ready to weep. The thought of the little that was left of her dream, of which he knew nothing, the little happiness that remained for her if it ever became realized seemed to her to be like the sadness of these flowers which, before they died, languished over the heart that they had felt beating with her first love, her first humiliation and her first sorrow.
The next day, she wanted no other flowers in her room which was usually full and reverberating with the glory of fresh roses.
When Mme Lawrence visited her she stopped before the vases of dead cattleyas, stripped of their beauty to eyes which are not in love.
- How is this, darling, you who love flowers so much?
- It seems to me that it is only today that I have come to love them, Madeleine was about to reply; she stopped herself, being too weary to explain and feeling that there are some truths which those who do not already have them within themselves can never be made to understand.
She contented herself by smiling amiably at the reproach. The feeling that this new life of hers was unsuspected by everyone and perhaps by Lepré himself made her feel a rare and forlorn pride. Her letters were bought to her; finding none from Lepré she felt a pang of disappointment. When she measured the distance between the absurdity of her disappointment where there was only the merest crumb of hope and the very real and cruel intensity of this disappointment, she understood that she had ceased to live solely in the life of events and actions. A veil of lies had begun to unfold before her eyes for a period which would be impossible to foresee. She would no longer see things other than through this veil, and more than anything, perhaps, things which she would have wanted to know and live in a more real way and more concerned with Lepré, the things which all came back to him.
Still one hope remained for her, that he had lied, that his indifference was feigned: she knew that the unanimous opinion was that she was one of the most attractive women in Paris, that her reputation for intelligence, wit, elegance, her high position in society added prestige to her beauty. Lepré on the other hand was considered a man of intelligence, artistic, very pleasant, a very good son, but was little sought after and never had any success with women; the attention she had paid him must have seemed to him to be totally unexpected and unhoped-for. She was astonished and kept hoping ...
Although Madeleine would in an instant have subordinated all the interests and affections in her life to Lepré, she nevertheless still believed, and her judgement was strengthened by the opinion of everyone, that, without being disagreeable, he was inferior to those remarkable men who, four years since the death of the marquis de Gouvres, consoled her in her widowhood by visiting her several times every day, and were the most precious adornment of her life.
She knew perfectly well that the inexplicable inclination which made him a unique being to her did not make him comparable to others. The reasons for her love were in her, and if they were also partly in him it was not because of his intellectual superiority nor his physical superiority, it was precisely because she loved only one face, only one smile, only one bearing, which were not as attractive to her as others', and not because his face, his smile, his bearing were more attractive than others', that she loved him. She was acquainted with more handsome, more charming men, and she was aware of the fact.
So when Lepré entered Madeleine's salon on Saturday at quarter past eight, he was confronted with, and he could have had no suspicion of it, the most passionate lover and at the same time the most clairvoyant adversary. If her beauty gave her the power to conquer him, her mind was no less capable of judging him; she was ready to pick like a bitter flower the pleasure of finding him mediocre and ridiculously disproportionate to the love she felt for him. It was not through prudence! She knew quite well that she would keep being caught up in this enchanted net and the mesh which her too indecisive spirit would break in Lepré's presence would be repaired by her overworked imagination the moment he left.
Indeed, when he came in she was suddenly calmed; it seemed that in giving him her hand she was able to take everything away from him. He was no longer the unique and absolute despot of her imagination, merely a pleasant visitor. They chatted; then all her prejudices fell away. In the delicate good nature, in the bold soundness of his mind, she found reasons which, if they did not completely justify her love, explained it, at least partially and demonstrated that something here corresponded to reality, took root, came more to life. She also observed that he was much more handsome than she had thought, with the delicate and noble face of a Louis XIII.
All her feelings for art relating to portraits from this period were connected from then on to the idea of her love, giving him a new existence by placing him in the realms of artistic taste. She had had brought over from Amsterdam a photograph of a portrait of a young man who looked like him.
She met him some days later. His mother was seriously ill and his trip had had to be delayed. She told him that she now had a portrait on her dressing table which reminded her of him. He appeared touched, but cold. She suffered profoundly over it, consoling herself however with the thought that at least he had understood, even if he did not appreciate her attentions. To be in love with a boor who did not even notice would have been more cruel still. So, reproaching him to herself for his indifference, she sought out the men who were in love with her, to whom she had been indifferent and coquettish, in order to display her ingenious and tender pity towards them, which at the very least she would have expected from him. But when she saw them again they all shared the terrible flaw of not being him, and the sight of them merely irritated her. She wrote to him; he waited four days before replying; then a letter arrived which anybody else would have found to be friendly, but which caused her to despair. He said:
"My mother is getting better, I shall leave in three weeks; from now until then my life will be very full, but I shall try to come to see you once to pay my respects." Was her jealousy caused by everything which "filled his life" and prevented her from being a part of it, grief over his departure and that he would only visit her once between now and then, or more grief still that he was not stricken with the need to visit her ten times every day before he left: she could not stay in, hastily put on her hat and went out on foot, walking quickly through the streets which led to his house, with the absurd hope that, by some miracle she was relying on, at the corner of the square he was going to appear before her radiant with tenderness and that in one look he would explain everything to her. All at once she saw him walking and chatting cheerfully with his friends. But then she felt filled with shame, believing that he would guess that she was looking for him and walked sharply into a nearby shop. In the days that followed she did not look for him again, avoided places where she might bump into him, keeping this last act of coquettishness, this last lack of dignity to herself.
One morning she was sitting alone in the Tuileries, on the Bord de L'Eau terrace. She let her grief float free, to stretch out, to relax freely out to the broad horizon, to gather flowers, to spring forth with the hollyhocks, the water jets and the columns, to gallop after the dragoons as they left the d'Orsay quarter, to drift with the flow of the Seine and soar with the swallows into the pale sky. It was the fifth day after his friendly letter had left her grief stricken. Suddenly she noticed Lepré's large white poodle which he let out on its own every morning. She had joked about this, telling him that one day somebody would steal it. The animal recognized her and came up to her. The absurd need to see Lepré which she had suppressed for five days overcame her completely. Grabbing the animal up in her arms, heaving with sobs, she hugged it for a long time, with all her strength, then removing the bouquet of violets that she was wearing on her bodice, and attaching it to the dog's collar, she let it go.
But, calmed and subdued after this attack, feeling better, little by little she felt her resentment disappear, some of her cheerfulness and hope return with her physical well-being, as she clung on to life and happiness. Lepré was leaving in seventeen days from now; she wrote to him to invite him to dine the following day, excusing herself for not having replied to him sooner, and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon. In the evening she would be dining in town; there would be plenty of men at this dinner, artists and sportsmen who knew Lepré. She wanted to find out whether he had a mistress, any ties which prevented him from getting close to her, which would explain his extraordinary behaviour. She would suffer greatly if she learned that this was the case, but at least she would know, and, perhaps, she could then hope that her beauty would sweep him off his feet after a little time. She left her house with the intention of asking them immediately, but her courage deserted her and she didn't dare. At the last minute she felt compelled to do so, less from a desire to know the truth than from the need to talk about him with other people, the sad charm of evoking him in vain wherever she was and he was not. After dinner when the conversation was becoming freer she spoke to two men who were close by:
- Tell me, do you know Lepré well?
- We have met every day for a long time, but we are not very intimate.
- Is he a charming man?
- Yes, he's a charming man.
- Ah well! perhaps you will be able to tell me ... don't feel obliged to be over indulgent, but it is a matter of great importance to me. - It is on behalf of a young girl who I love dearly and who is rather attracted to him. Would it be possible for someone to marry him without any reservations?
Her two speakers paused for a while in embarrassment:
- No, that would not be possible.
Madeleine continued courageously in order to bring the matter to a close more quickly.
- Does he have a long-standing relationship?
- No, in a word that would be impossible.
- Tell me why, please, I beg you.
- I'm sorry.
But in the end, after all, it would be better to tell her, she might suppose it was something particularly villainous or something ridiculous.
- Oh well! here it is and I don't think we are doing any great injustice to Lepré by saying this; to begin with you won't repeat this, and in any case all Paris knows, and as for marriage he has far too much honesty and delicacy to consider it. Lepré is a charming boy but he has a vice. He likes dishonourable women whom one picks up in the dirt and he falls madly in love with them; at times he spends his nights in the suburbs or on the boulevards out of town risking being murdered one day, and not only does he fall madly in love with them but he doesn't love any other women but those. He is totally indifferent to the most ravishing woman in society or the most perfect young girl. He doesn't even notice them. His pleasures, his preoccupations, his life lie elsewhere. Those who don't know him well have said in the past that with his exquisite nature a grand passion would take him away from all that. But for that he would have to be capable of experiencing it, and he is incapable of doing so. His father was like that before him, and if the same thing doesn't happen to his sons, it will only be because he will not have any.
The following evening at eight o'clock Madeleine was informed that Lepré was in the drawing room. She went in; the windows were open, the lamps had not yet been lit and he was waiting for her on the balcony. Not far away several houses which were enclosed by gardens were reposing in the gentle evening light, distant, oriental and religious as if they were in Jerusalem. The rare and caressing light gave a new and moving aspect to every object. A wheelbarrow which was lit up in the middle of the dark street seemed somehow touching, a little further away the sombre and already nocturnal trunk of a chestnut tree beneath its foliage was still bathed by the dying rays. At the end of the avenue the setting sun curved gloriously like a triumphal arch decked with gold and celestial verdure. At the neighbours' window people's heads could be seen reading with homely solemnity. As she approached Lepré Madeleine felt the sweetness alleviated by all this make her heart grow languid, softened and partly opened and had to force herself not to start weeping.
He, however, more handsome this evening and charming than ever, showed a delicate amiability which he had never shown up until then. Then they talked seriously, and for the first time she recognized the loftiness of his intelligence. If he did not find favour in society it was precisely because the truths which he sought could only be found above the visual horizon of spiritual beings and those truths of higher minds are seen as ridiculous errors on earth. Moreover in some ways his goodness lent them a charming poetry just as the sun gracefully colours the highest summits. And he was so kind to her, and he appeared so grateful for her goodness, that feeling she had never loved him so much before, and having renounced the hope of seeing her love reciprocated, all at once she joyfully glimpsed the possibility of a purely platonic intimacy, thanks to which she would see him every day; she joyfully shared this ingenious plan with him. But he, admitting that he was very busy, could only spare one day every fortnight. She had told him enough for him to understand that she was in love with him, if he wanted to understand. And he, as timid as he was, if he had had any shadow of an attraction towards her, would have spoken words of love to her, however slight. Her painful gaze was so fixed on him that she would have noticed immediately and fed upon then avidly. She wanted to stop Lepré who carried on talking about his lack of spare time, the fullness of his life, but unexpectedly her gaze plunged into the heart of her adversary as before when it had been able to plunge into the infinite horizon of the expansive sky before her, and she felt the uselessness of words. She remained silent, then she said:
- Yes I understand, you are very busy.
And at the end of the evening, as he was leaving he said to her:
- Can I not call on you to say goodbye?
She replied gently:
- No my friend, I am rather busy, I think it would be better to leave it at that.
She waited for the word; he didn't say it, and she repeated:
After that she waited for a letter, in vain. Then she wrote to him saying that it would be best to be frank, that if she had given him the impression that she was attracted to him then it was not true, that she would prefer not to see him so often, that she had asked it of him through an imprudent friendliness.
He replied that he had never imagined that they had anything other than a great friendship, for which she was famous, and that he had never had any intention of betraying that friendship by visiting so often as to bore her.
At this she wrote to him saying that she loved him, that she would never love anybody but him. He replied that she was making fun of him.
She stopped writing to him, but to begin with she never stopped thinking about him. Eventually that too passed. Two years later, her widowhood becoming a burden to her, she married the duke de Mortagne who possessed good looks and intelligence and who, until Madeleine's death, that is to say for more than forty years, adorned her life with a glory and affection to which she never showed herself to be insensitive.
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