Authors: Louis Couperus
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics
Translated from the Dutch by A. Texteira de Mattos and John Gray
olf Van Attema, for an after-dinner walk, had taken the opportunity of calling on his wife’s sister, Cecile Van Even, in the Scheveningen Road. He was waiting in her little boudoir, walking to and fro among the rosewood furniture and the old moiré settees, over and over again, with three or four long steps, measuring the width of the tiny room. On an onyx pedestal, at the head of a
burned an onyx lamp, glowing sweetly within its lace shade, a great six-petalled flower of light.
Mevrouw was still with the children, putting them to bed, the maid had told him; so he could not see his godson, little Dolf, that evening. He was sorry. He would have liked to go upstairs and romp with Dolf as he lay in his little bed; but he remembered Cecile’s request, and his promise of an earlier occasion, when a romp of this sort with his uncle had kept the boy lying awake for hours.
So he waited, smiling at his obedience, measuring the little boudoir with his steps – the steps of a
man, broad and squat, no longer in his first youth, showing symptoms of baldness under his short, brown hair, with small blue-grey eyes, kindly and pleasant of glance, and a mouth which was firm and determined, in spite of the smile in the midst of the ruddy growth of his short Teutonic beard.
A log smouldered on the little hearth of nickel and gilt, and two little flames flickered discreetly – a fire of peaceful intimacy in that twilight atmosphere of
lamplight. Intimacy and discreetness shed over the whole little room an aroma as of violets; a suggestion of the scent of violets nestled, too, in the soft tints of the draperies and furniture – rosewood and rose moiré – and hung about the corners of the little rosewood writing-table, with its silver appointments, and photographs under smooth glass frames. Above the writing-table hung a small white Venetian mirror. The gentle air of modest refinement, the subdued, almost prudish, tenderness floating about the little hearth, the writing-table, and the
gliding between the quiet folds of the fading hangings, had something soothing, something to quiet the nerves; so that Dolf presently ceased his work of measurement, sat down, looked around him, and finally remained staring at the portrait of Cecile’s husband, the Minister of State, dead eighteen months back.
After that he had not to wait long before Cecile came in. She advanced towards him, smiling as he rose from
his seat, pressed his hand, excused herself that the children had detained her. She always put them to sleep herself, her two boys, Dolf and Christie, and then they said their prayers, one beside the other in their little beds. The scene came back to Dolf as she spoke of the children; he had often seen it.
Christie was not well, he was so listless; she hoped it might not turn out to be measles.
There was motherliness in her voice, but she did not seem a mother as she reclined, girlishly slight, on the
the soft glow behind her of the lamp on its stem of onyx. She was still in the black of her mourning. Here and there the light behind her touched her flaxen hair with a frail golden halo; the loose gown of crêpe she wore accentuated the girlish slenderness of her figure with the gently curving lines of her long neck and somewhat narrow shoulders; her arms hung with a certain weariness as her hands lay in her lap; gently curving, too, were the lines of her girlish youth of bust and slender waist, slender as a vase is slender; so that she seemed a still expectant flower of maidenhood, scarcely more than adolescent, not nearly old enough to be the mother of her children, her two boys of six and seven.
Her features were lost in the shadow – the lamplight touching her hair with gold – and Dolf could not at first see into her eyes; but presently, as he grew accustomed to the shadow, these shone softly out from the dusk of her features. She spoke in her low-toned voice, a little
faint and soft, like a subdued whisper; she spoke again of Christie, of his godchild Dolf, and then asked news of Amélie, her sister.
“We are all well thank you! You may well ask how we are, we hardly ever see you.”
“I so seldom go out,” she said as an excuse.
“That is just where you make a mistake; you do not get enough air, enough society. Amélie was only saying so at dinner today, and so I came round to ask you to join us tomorrow evening.”
“Is it a party?”
“Very well, I will come. I shall be very pleased.”
“Yes, but why do you never come of your own accord?”
“I can’t summon up the energy.”
“How do you spend your evenings?”
“I read, I write, or I do nothing at all. The last is really the most delightful; I only feel myself alive when I do nothing.”
He shook his head and replied: “You are a funny girl. You really don’t deserve that we should like you as much as we do.”
“How?” she asked, archly.
“Of course it makes no difference to you, you are just as well without us!”
“You mustn’t say that; it’s not true. Your sympathy is very necessary to me, but it takes so much to get me to
go out. When I am once in my chair I sit thinking, or not thinking, and I find it difficult to stir.”
“What a horribly lazy life!”
“There it is! … You like me so much: can’t you forgive me my laziness, especially when I have promised you to come round tomorrow.”
“Very well,” he said, laughing, “of course you are free to live as you choose. We like you just the same, in spite of your neglect.”
She laughed, reproached him for using ugly words, and rose slowly to pour out a cup of tea for him. He felt a caressive softness creeping over him, as if he would have liked to stay there a long time, talking and sipping tea in that violet-scented atmosphere of subdued refinement; he, the man of action, the politician, member of the Second Chamber, every hour of whose day was filled up with committees here and committees there.
“You were saying that you read and wrote a good deal: what do you write?” he asked.
“Nothing but letters?”
“I like writing letters. I corresponded with my brother and sister in India.”
“But, that is not the only thing?”
“What else do you write then?”
“You are growing indiscreet, are you not?”
“What nonsense!” he laughed back, as if he were quite within his right. “What is it? Literature?”
“No. My diary.”
He laughed loudly and joyously. “You keep a diary! What do you want with a diary? Your days are all exactly alike.”
“Indeed they are not.”
He shrugged his shoulders quite nonplussed; she had always been a riddle to him. She knew this, and loved to mystify him.
“Sometimes my days are very nice, and sometimes very horrid.”
“Really!” he said, smiling, looking at her out of his kind little eyes; but he did not understand.
“And so sometimes I have a great deal to write in my diary,” she continued.
“Let me see some of it.”
“When I am dead.”
A mock shiver ran through his broad shoulders.
“Brrr! how gloomy!”
“Dead! What is there gloomy about that?” she asked, almost gaily; but he rose to go.
“You frighten me,” he said jestingly. “I must be returning home; I have a great deal of work to do still. So we’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Thanks, yes, tomorrow.”
He took her hand, and she struck a little silver gong for him to be let out. He stood looking at her a moment,
with a smile in his beard.
“Yes, you are a funny girl, and yet we all like you!” he repeated, as if he wished to excuse himself in his own eyes for this sympathy. He bent down and kissed her on the forehead: he was so much older than she.
“I am very glad you all like me,” she said. “Till tomorrow. Then goodbye.”
He went and she was alone. The words of their conversation seemed still to be floating in the silence, like vanishing atoms. Then the silence became complete, and Cecile sat motionless, leaning back in the three little cushions of the
black in her crêpe against the light of the lamp, gazing out before her. All around her descended a vague dream as of little clouds, in which faces shone for an instant, from out of which came low voices without logical sequence of words, an aimless confusion of recollection. It was the dreaming of one on whose brain lay no obsession, either of happiness or of grief, the dreaming of a mind filled with peaceful light; a wide, still, grey Nirvana, in which all the trouble of thinking flows away, and the thought merely wanders back over former impressions, taking them here and there, without selection. For Cecile’s future appeared to her as a monotonous sweetness of unruffled peace, where Dolf and Christie grew up into boys, students, men, while she herself remained nothing but the mother, for in the unconsciousness of her spiritual life she did
not know herself.
She did not know that she was more wife than mother, however fond she might be of her children. Swathed in the clouds of her dreaming, she did not feel there was something missing, by reason of her
; she did not feel loneliness nor a need of someone beside her, nor regret that yielding air alone flowed about her, in which her arms might shape themselves and grope in vain for something to embrace.
The capacity for these needs was there, but so deep hidden in her soul’s unconsciousness that she did not know of its existence, that one day it might assert itself and rise up slowly, up and up, an apparition of clearer melancholy. For such melancholy as was in her dreaming seemed to her to belong to the past, to the memory of the kind husband she had lost, and never, never, to the present, to an unrealised sense of her loneliness.
Whoever had told her now that something was wanting in her life would have roused her indignation; she herself imagined that she had all she wanted; and highly she valued the calm contentment of the innocent egoism in which she and her children breathed, a contentment she thought complete. When she dreamed, as now, about nothing in particular – little dream-clouds fleeing across the field of her imagination, with other cloudlets in the wake – sometimes great tears would well in her eyes, and trickle slowly down her cheek; but to her these were only tears of an unspeakably vague
melancholy, a light load upon her heart, barely oppressive, and then for some reason she did not know, for she had ceased to mourn the loss of her husband. In this manner she could pass whole evenings, simply sitting dreaming, never oppressed with herself, nor reflecting how the people outside hurried and tired themselves, aimlessly, without being happy, while she was happy; happy in the cloudland of her dreams.
The hours sped, and her hand was too heavy to reach for the book upon the table beside her; heaviness at last permeated her so thoroughly that one o’clock arrived, and she could not yet decide to get up and go to her bed.
Next evening, when Cecile entered the Van Attema’s drawing room, slowly, with languorous steps, in the sinuous black of her crêpe, Dolf advanced towards her and took her hand:
“I hope you will not be annoyed. Quaerts called, and Dina had told the servants we were at home. I am sorry …”
“It does not matter!” she whispered back, a little irritated nevertheless, in her sensitiveness, at unexpectedly meeting this stranger, whom she did not remember ever to have seen at Dolf’s, who now rose from where he had been sitting with old Mrs Hoze, Dolf’s great-aunt, Amélie, and the two daughters, Anna and Suzette.
Cecile kissed the old lady, and greeted the rest of the circle in turn, welcomed with a smile by all of them. Dolf introduced:
“My friend Taco Quaerts … Mrs Van Even, my sister-in-law.”
They sat a little scattered round the great fire on the open hearth, the piano close to them in the corner, its draped back turned to them, and Jules, the youngest boy, sitting behind it, playing Rubinstein’s
Romance in E
, and so absorbed that he had not heard his aunt come in.
“Jules …” Dolf cried.
“Leave him alone,” said Cecile.
The boy did not reply, and went on playing. Cecile, across the piano, saw his tangled hair and his eyes abstracted in the music. A suspicion of melancholy slowly rose within her; like a weight it climbed up her breast and stifled her breathing. From time to time
notes falling suddenly from Jules’ fingers gave her little shocks in her throat, and a strange feeling of uncertainty seemed winding her about as with vague meshes; a feeling not new to her, in which she seemed no longer to possess herself, to be lost and wandering in search of herself, in which she did not know what she was thinking, nor what at this very moment she might say.
Something dropped into her brain, a momentary suggestion. Her head sank a little, and, without hearing distincdtly, it seemed to her that once before she had heard this romance played so, exactly so, as Jules now played it, very, very long ago, in some former existence long gone, in just the same circumstances, in this very circle of people, before this very fire; the tongues of the flame shot up with the same flickerings as from the logs of ages back, and Suzette blinked with the same expression she had worn then on that former …
Why was it that she should be sitting here again now, in the midst of them all? Why should it be, sitting like this round a fire, listening to music? How strange it was, and what strange things there were in this world! … Still,
it was pleasant to be in this company, sweetly sociable, quiet, without many words, the music behind the piano dying plaintively away – until it suddenly stopped. Mrs Hoze’s voice had a ring of sympathy as she murmured in Cecile’s ear:
“So we are getting you back, my child? You are coming out from your solitude again?”
Cecile pressed her hand with a little laugh:
“But have I ever hidden myself? I have always been at home.”
“Yes, but we had to come to you. You have always remained at home, have you not?”
Cecile laughed again quietly.