Madame Martial

   But that evening I had, only more strongly, one of those impressions where a person suddenly loses for us their reality of being perceived directly through the vulgar observation of life, and appear to us as instantly linked to some fixed idea of which it is no more than the spiritualized plaything.
   We did not stay long at the café. Bertrand de Réveillon and myself went to a little soirée at his aunt, the marquise de Réveillon's, a soirée that was utterly boring us to tell the truth, and it was my misfortune to be seated next to the boring Mme Martial. She was the wife of the great painter Martial who, in spite of his eighty years, still went out to the theatre, into society, and still exhibited his much admired canvases. He was extremely worn and frail with age and, just as the magnitude of a light allows us to calculate how far away it has been placed, so the feeble flame of his eyes seemed to indicate that he was looking at everything from the depth of a far distant mind, no doubt from the depths of his middle years. And it was from there no doubt, from that ancient palace within himself, yet conserved deep within by the force of habit, that he resurrected those precious golds, those unique purples that his trembling hand still came to lay on the canvas and whose rare production would cease once and for all when he was gone.
   His wife was a lady of close to sixty, extremely tall, extremely robust, extremely worthless, of an unflinching stateliness, but nobody ever thought about that, only her extreme tediousness.She was remarkable for her old age on account of the unheard-of prolongation of which she drew a great many respects, invitations, a life that was more brilliant than she would have when she was nothing more than a widow, except for when she was surrounded by truly faithful friends and people of imagination who liked to be acquainted with Victor Hugo's niece, Lamartine's brother, Balzac's Esther Van Gobsec.
   When I met her at the marquise de Réveillon's or elsewhere, I usually had to find her a drink, look for her coat and I dreaded meeting her. But on that evening, after having greeted her, while listening to the music I suddenly thought of her in a different way: it occurred to me that when Martial had married her, the absolute majesty of her figure and her features when she was in the beauty of youth, must have made her into a sort of dream-like apparition of beauty to Martial, beauty whose traces he sought out in Greek statues and Italian paintings, that she must have seemed almost superhuman to him, that he had fallen in love with like one of those statues that only artists - the only truly prodigal collectors - pay fabulous sums for, that her shoulders, the line of her neck, the shape of her forehead, the expression in her eyes were in direct harmony with what he loved, what he venerated most in the world, and that to be able to have that statue for himself, and that at the same time for it to be a living and beautiful woman that could be capable of inspiring in him all that his great sad heart was so capable of giving in love, that must have given him a happiness touching on ecstasy, when we see living beauty, feeling our caress, and that the desire awoken in our adoration senses that it can awaken desire in the adored beauty. And as this woman was delightful, proud of him, very honest, very faithful, we understand everything that the infinitely delicate soul of Martial was able to bring out in her, veneration, gratitude, absolute attachment that made her for him the only good in life, a good a thousand times more precious than life. How many times in the veneration of an aged husband for the woman who has grown old beside him, have we felt that an infinite admiration for her beauty was the starting point, is still infused with it and that the dazzling image remains in the depths of the purest, the most devoted glances, the most replete with sublime sacrifice.

Unused manuscript of Jean Santeuil, written about 1902.


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