The Little Phrase

   One evening Jean returned home without having seen her. It was the third time. So she did not go there any more. Perhaps he would never see her again. He could not let himself lose all hope of ever knowing who she was. Perhaps she was late, perhaps she was going to come, perhaps she was there at this very moment. He took a carriage and had it take him to the corner of rue Saint-Dominique. His heart was pounding the whole time. It was her. He recognized her little hat. But in the next moment the little hat turned into the head-dress of an old lady, then the bonnet of a young girl, both of whom had for a moment taken on the desired form like images in the sky. And soon every woman, old or young, appeared before him: someone else. He turned back, but the whole time he was saying to himself: at this very moment she must be going to rue de Bac, the Concorde bridge, and made the driver go back again. He would have liked to have taken two carriages, three, four, so as to be able to go to all the places where she might be at the same time. The single thought that she could be there came like a dreadful turn of the key in the movement of his heart. And it began to beat still faster.
   She could have been seeing one of her friends home. He gave her ten minutes to reach the Concorde bridge. His heart trembled with anxiety and faintness. All of a sudden he was startled to hear a loud voice close by exclaim: "Yes, somebody told me so. Without mentioning any names, it's Eugène." It was a gentleman walking by between two others, laughing. He would have liked to have beaten out of the man what he had meant by that and repeated to himself with disgust: "Without mentioning any names, it's Eugène." He was like a man in a fever and was bumped unintentionally by a passer-by. Shock changed to fury. And the invalid will gladly rain down blows of the fist onto the one who has caused his discomfort. Finally he had to give up. He went back home. And when he closed behind him the doors to the stairs that she had never climbed, when his man-servant cheerfully opened the door for him, gave him a letter on which he recognized Réveillon's handwriting, when they came to tell him that dinner was served, he felt that his deception now being complete, he would have to resign himself to accomplishing various actions over the course of dull and melancholy days that he would be forced to spend, one after the other, far away from her.
   In the evening he had to dress to attend a soirée at a salon where he knew that nobody knew her. He arrived, chamber music was being played, he seated himself in a corner. And as he felt the effects of his weakened heart, the sounds of the violin and piano made him feel a little ill. He did not yet know what was being played even though it seemed familiar to him. Suddenly, as the violin was carried up it remained all at once on a single note as if in a moment of anticipation: the anticipation continued, but the violin sang stronger and stronger, as if unable to contain itself, beginning to perceive what was about to come, expending all its energies to reach the moment when it was to appear. Then Jean recognized Saint-Saëns' 1st sonata for piano and violin and conscious of what was to come, he felt his heart become agitated. And indeed the expected phrase appealed directly to him. It was not, properly speaking, the musicians who were playing it. It was the phrase itself, an invisible and mysterious creature which existed in reality, close by him, but hidden, there beside him without him feeling it, and wanting to speak to him this evening, which was obliged, because these were the magic rites that must be fulfilled in order that it may reveal itself, to yield to all its incantations, to pass through all its incantations. Just then when the violin trilled on a single note that awaited it, Jean's anxiety in some way shared in it. But by then it was already sure that it was going to be able to speak to him. Perhaps it did not know for certain if he had already had a presentiment of it, but it was sure that when it was here, he would suddenly hold up his head, not take his eyes off it, listen to it. But he had recognized it an instant before it appeared. And at its very first word, conscious for the first time in this empty and useless world in which he had felt lost since this evening, of a mysterious and invisible creature there beside him, like the idea of another who understood him and was speaking to him, he bowed his head, full of emotion, and his eyes welled with tears. But still it spoke. And wiping the tears of his sadness with its gentle hand, bestirring him and leading him along the dusty paths of past sorrows, and showing him the future with a smile, it spoke. And it told him everything it had to say. And the whole time he felt it there, quite real, appealing to him alone, telling him everything it had to say, for him, without the knowledge of all those who were fulfilling the rites necessary for it to appear. Then having finished the important things it had to say and the rites that followed upon its appearance, the reprise of the first phrases of the violin, alluding to it as if pronouncing its name in different successive languages, took place. And among all these strangers feeling the little phrase and the thought of the woman he loved close to his heart, making a gesture of placing his lips on them both and pressing them gently to his heart, Jean vowed to them his eternal love.


From the manuscript of Jean Santeuil. An early version of the episode in which Swann hears Vinteuil's "little phrase".

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