The Lemoine Affair, by Henri de Régnier

   The diamond affords me little pleasure. I find no beauty in it. The little that it adds to the beauty of human faces is less an effect of its own than a reflection of theirs. It has neither the marine transparency of emerald, nor the boundless azure of sapphire. I prefer the sorrel light of topaz, but more than anything the crepuscular charm of opal. They are emblematic and two-fold. If moonlight irisates one half of their face, the other seems tinged with the flaming pinks and green shades of sunset. We are not attracted so much by the colours that they present to us as by the dreams that they instil in us. To those who know nothing outside of themselves other than the shape of their destiny, they display an alternate and silent face.
   There were a large number of them in the town where Hermas took me. The house in which we were living was more commendable for the beauty of its position than for its human comforts. The perspective of the horizon was better arranged, but the layout of the premises was not well considered. It was more agreeable to dream there than it was to sleep. It was more picturesque than comfortable. Overcome by the heat of the day, peacocks would let out their fateful and quizzical cries throughout the night, which, to tell the truth, is more propitious for reverie than favourable for sleep. The noise of the church bells prevented one from finding any in the morning, for lack of that which one can only enjoy before daylight, a second which repairs at least to a certain extent the fatigue of being denied the first. The grandeur of the ceremonies for which their chimes announce the hour compensate little for the inconvenience of being awoken at that time when it is more agreeable to be sleeping, if one wishes to be able to profit from the later ones. The only solution was to quit the linen bedclothes and the feather pillow and to go and take a walk around the house. To tell the truth, if there was any charm to be had from this enterprise there was also an element of danger. It was amusing but not without peril. Sometimes we prefer to forego the pleasure of it rather than go through with an adventure. The floorboards that M. de Séryeuse had brought back from the isles were multicoloured and uneven, slippery and geometrical. The design of the lozenge shapes, sometimes red, sometimes black, offered a more pleasant spectacle to the eye but the woodwork, at some points too high, at others broken down, did not guarantee secure footing for a stroll.
   The pleasures that could be taken in the courtyard did not have to be obtained at such risk. We would go down around midday. The sun would have warmed the paving stones or the rain would have sprinkled the roof tiles. From time to time the weathercock would creak in the wind. In front of the closed door a sculpted Hermes, monumental and green with age, added the shape of his caduceus to the shadow he projected. The whirling dead leaves of the neighbouring trees fell around his heels and curled their wings of gold around his wings of marble. Votive and pot-bellied, doves would come and perch in the archivolt or on the embrasure of the pedestal, frequently letting fall an unsavoury ball, scaly and grey. It would splatter its intermittent and grainy mass down onto the gravel or on the turf, making the grass sticky with it and making itself plentiful on the lawn and which there was no lack of on the walkway of what M. de Séryeuse referred to as his garden.
   Lemoine often came to stroll around it.
   It was there that I saw him for the first time. He appeared rather bedecked in a workman's smock with a doctor's cap on his head. Yet the rogue claimed to be him and to be involved in various sciences in which it is more profitable to succeed but in which it is often not prudent to devote oneself to.
   It was midday when his carriage arrived, describing a circle in front of the steps to the house. The paving stones rang with the sound of the horses' hooves, a footman ran up to the carriage step. In the street women crossed themselves. The North wind blew. At the foot of the marble Hermes its caducean shadow took on a fugitive and sullen aspect. It seemed to be laughing as it was badgered by the wind. The church bells rang. Between the bronze peals of the great bell a carillon would venture its synchopated choreography of crystal. In the garden a swing creaked. Dry seeds were spread out on the sundial. By turns the sun blazed or hid. Turned to agate by the light, the Hermes of the threshold grew darker from the sun's disappearance than it had been during its absence. Successive and ambiguous the Marmorean countenance endured. A smile seemed to elongate the expiatory lips into the shape of a caduceus. An odour of osier, pumice-stone, Cineraria and marquetry escaped from the closed Venetian shutters of the water-closet and through the partly opened door of the vestibule. It made the tedium of the hour more oppressive. M. de Séryeuse and Lemoine continued chatting on the entrance steps. We heard an ambiguous and sharp noise like a burst of furtive laughter. It was the gentleman's sword which was knocking against the alchemical glass retort. The feathered hat of the one offered more protection against the wind than the silk head-kerchief of the other. Lemoine had a cold. A little snot had dropped from his nose which he had neglected to blow, onto his collar and his coat. Its viscous and lukewarm little stone had slid over the linen of the one, but had adhered to the cloth of the other and remained suspended above the void in a silvery and fluid fringe as it fell in drops. As the sunlight shone through the drops it confused together the slimy mucus and the watery liquid. One could no longer make out anything but one single juicy, convulsive, transparent and slowly hardening mass; and in its ephemeral refulgence with which it was decorating Lemoine's coat, it seemed to have immobilized in its presence the illusion of a momentary diamond, still hot, if I may say so, from the furnace from which it had emerged, for which this unstable jelly, corrosive and lively - as it had become once more for a moment - seemed all at once, through its deceitful and fascinating beauty, to represent both its mockery and its symbol.

 

Article appeared in Le Figaro, 6 March 1909 and reprinted in Pastiches et Mélanges (Libraire Gallimard, 1919).


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