Par l'Amour

EVERY morning between ten and eleven, Bertrand, a bachelor, took the suburban train at the dreamy station of Le Vésinet for the St. Lazare. He was bound for ‘his’ Ministry, where, like so many of his literary colleagues, he held a sinecure. During his daily journeys Bertrand was in the habit of immersing himself in his newspaper — though ‘immersing’ is a somewhat exaggerated expression for his superficial skimming of headlines, to be forgotten almost immediately. For Bertrand, the bachelor, belonged to the invulnerable elect whom time and news could not injure—except for occasional unfriendly references to one of his brain children.

This day — a beautiful day in May — Bertrand, as usual superficially immersed in his newspaper, took no more notice of his surroundings than on any other day. Thus it happened that for some time he did not notice the captivating figure that had boarded the train at one of its casual stops and was now sitting across from him. The moment his eyes suddenly encompassed this figure he bitterly rued their neglect of the preceding minutes. It was a woman — no, a girl, apparently of very tender age. The delicate figure, dressed in a kind of mourning, or half-mourning, formed a sharp contrast to the remaining feminity present, whose informal, summerly-bare arms and legs seemed to multiply the intense daylight in the train with their merry flesh tints.

The girl across from Bertrand sat motionless, separated from her environment not merely by a little bit of space but by entire eras. From her patent-leather shoes to her polka-dotted veil she seemed like the charming shadow of a decade gone by. This ensemble, nevertheless, gave the impression of particular stylishness. The mysterious girl held her head lowered. Bertrand could see nothing of her face. The polkadotted veil, wreathing the suggested radiance of her countenance, trembled with the vibrations of the train. Here and there a lock of brown hair escaped from it.

The beautiful one held her head lowered for the reason that she was reading, and possibly because she was a little shortsighted. Her reading matter appeared to be a large-sized paper-bound novel, printed in two columns. Bertrand wondered that such old-fashioned reading material, its text interspersed with pale though lively illustrations, was still on sale as it had been when he was a boy.

He tried to decipher the title of the story which held the girl so completely enthralled that she seemed to be present only in a cloud of blissful absence. He finally succeeded when, savoring the last few lines of a page, she slowly turned it with her pale, luminous fingers, encased in black openwork gloves — turned the page as though she could hardly bear to leave behind the lives she had just been reading about. Par l’amour was the title of the novel.

Like a radiant reflection the busy lines of the novel, Par l’amour, in themselves without doubt somewhat turgid, were mirrored upon the girl’s invisible face. Bertrand only sensed this reflection. It seemed to him as though a rapidly run film with the extreme variations in light and shade were thrown upon a hidden screen, while he was able to see only the changes in light between the projector and the screen. Reunions and partings, kisses and shots, escapes and rescues — they all seemed to be miraculously accelerated by the avid time-scythe of the reading eye. Without having seen it, Bertrand knew this impatient eye, racing along the lines with such vehemence and such fervor that the harvested, read portion of the page seemed to wilt and turn gray. Even more than by the girl’s quaint beauty and her unconscious grace he was delighted by her enraptured reading, her unconditional surrender to an old-fashioned work of fiction which most certainly would have stopped him on the first page. Whatever the story of Par l’amour, it was not until to-day, at the sight of the girl with the novel, that the true miracle of reading was revealed to him.

A few days ago Bertrand, the bachelor, had been forty-four years old. More than ever he had grown to be a victim of visual adventure — nor always purely visual; but recently a new and melancholy impatience had crept into his heart. How much longer would he have to wait for the little death — the death within Death? This ’little death’ — a half-grown but full-blooded brother of the great Death — to Bertrand meant the dreaded moment when women would no longer answer his smile, when their eyes would no longer find him worthy of notice. Yet at the sight of the impassioned reader he was troubled, not by this new uncertainty of the end, but by the old uncertainty of the beginning — the feverish anxiety of the boy he had fancied lost in the immemorial past.

In the grip of this blushing sentiment he hardly knew himself any longer. His body suddenly seemed in his way and he flattened it against the corner in embarrassment, lest he approach the virginal figure too closely. His anxiously halting gaze caressed the polka-dotted veil, the hidden radiance of the face, the slender and perfect throat whose creamy ivory merged into a lace collar of identical shade, the childlike arc of the breasts under the shimmering black silk. Still further his eyes groped, to the faint radiance of the hands encased in network gloves and holding the novel Par l’amour. Nor did he end his pilgrimage — blinking as though he were doing something forbidden — until from beneath half-closed lids he had caressed the delicate feet in their black hose.

Bertrand’s imagination was not easily aroused. He worked hard over his books. He was known as a scrupulous master of his craft rather than as an inspired disciple of creative fantasy. An insistent urge to take stock of what was happening rose up before him again and again; but now, with the train roaring across the boat-and-flag-studded Seine and the faint perfume of the girl assailing him like a secret messenger who would not be put off — now pure reverie overcame his critical spirit. Might not this girl whom but five minutes ago he had never seen — this timeless beauty amid blatantly proffered female flesh, this mind lost and wrapped in an old-fashioned novel — might she not be that great miraculous chance assigned to him by fate at the last moment, in the forty-fifth spring of his declining life?

Superfluous question. She is that chance. They have been married since yesterday and are bound for their first vacation. He is not particularly surprised that between Now and Now lies the year of his courtship — a courtship so intense and ardent that he would have hardly thought himself capable of it. Again she is passionately reading just as she was then, when they first met in the train bound for St. Lazare. Is it perchance one of his own books she is now reading? No, no! Let her not become confused by one of his carefully wrought sentences. Did he not spend an entire afternoon on the right bank of the Seine hunting up a large supply of old-fashioned paper-bound novels whose only advantage was that they resembled Par 1’amour? And now she is lost and enthralled again — fortunately not in his own painstaking stylistic struggle for verisimilitude, but in this tense, sentimental love story which still floods her invisible countenance as though with a distant radiance.

Bertrand seriously considered whether he might be able to overcome in himself what he had come to think o( as ‘ literary standards ‘ — this queer intertwining of arrogance, veneration, snobbism, truthfulness, fear of reality, and resignation. To be sure, he did not aspire to the bold thought of ever being able to write a Par l’amour for his wife; but perhaps they might meet halfway — he as a writer and she as a reader.

Bertrand does not stir; he closes his eyes. He is determined not to disturb his young wife, even should she not raise her eyes from her book until the end of the journey. Is it not more than enough to be so close to the tardy miracle — this incredible fulfillment of a dissolute and wasted bachelor’s existence? He is determined to avoid the youthful error of forming women in his own image. This time he will defend the living image of the women against himself— against his male lack of consideration, his greed, his gratification, and his urge to escape. Humbly, with eyes closed and egotism suspended, he will enjoy the heavenly boon of her existence, linked to him so airily yet so completely. Is it not for this reason that, in a tremendous access of noble-minded self-control, he has not touched her to this hour, not even with the antenna-like sensitivity of the tip of his middle finger? Is it not for this reason that he is constantly attempting to pacify his hungry senses, mutinying behind the iron bars of his ego? The reading girl is not to become his mistress prematurely — not even by mental rape. In the spring of one’s forty-fifth year one has, after all, — and high time, too, — achieved mastery of patience in love.

Without a trace of irony or criticism he had submitted to a family law whose labyrinthine and austere philistinism had stood still in our age as had the cool, almost forgotten house where she lived. The empty place of honor of her departed father at the head of the table was taken by an enlarged photograph. He had been scrutinized by the eagle eyes of twenty uncles and aunts, had to answer countless questions before the girl was permitted to depart as his bride. At the very last a centenarian was brought forward — the eldest of the tribe, who wore the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor on his hospital gown. With many reservations the elder gave his grudging blessing, which sounded more like a curse.

These thoughts were by no means completely formed in Bertrand’s mind. The strength of the dream excited by the nearness of the reading girl was so new, so deep, that it was not actual pictures that passed through his mind, — that would have been nothing special, — but rather the almost imageless memory of pictures, of scenes lived through, obstacles overcome, long walks, talks, confessions: the full fragant afterglow of things that never happened, not even in a dream. It was as though an old mountaineer should, at the mere mention of a peak, feel the breathless exhaustion of the completed ascent. Indeed, Bertrand’s heart started to beat. The rebellious desire for love within him had already involved him so deeply with the reading girl that he became fearful. It would have been almost painful to pretend that nothing had happened. Even now there was a secret obligation which linked him to the unconsciously beloved. This last great chance: was not the surprising vehemence of his emotion the call of destiny itself? When the train reached the station could he simply steal away like a banal Romeo, missing the last great chance of his life?

Bertrand began to consider how he might best and most naturally approach the girl. Beads of sweat appeared upon his forehead. Despite a life rich in amorous adventure he invariably found it very difficult to address a strange woman. He turned his head away from the girl, who was still deeply absorbed in her reading. Outside the window along a bleak wall ran an inscription in large black letters: ‘Three miles to St. Lazare station.’ Ten minutes! Bertrand knew the best and most natural way was likely to be before the trip was over, during the remaining ten minutes. A word, perhaps, about Par l’amour — a smiling word about this magic work which had the magnificent power to enthrall the reader so that she heard, saw, and felt nothing, not even his own admiring gaze. Bertrand’s still undefeated literary standards made him decide that the expression ‘admiring gaze’ had perhaps better be dropped. With a queer look of pain he stared out at the houses, at the ugly back view of Paris. Suddenly he remembered: ‘But I haven’t even seen her face.’ And he was amazed that he should have loved and cherished this unseen face for so long.

Slowly Bertrand turned his eyes. The girl had stopped reading. The paper-bound volume that contained Par l’amour lay in her lap, wilted, used up, sucked dry. The face he had not seen before was looking at him, quite frankly and attentively. It was a young face — not an eighteen-year-old face, as he had dreamed, but a face no older than twenty-five years. It was a handsome face, though not the beautiful one Bertrand had cherished in his mind with such certainty. And yet, his hands were cold with an almost indescribable feeling of disillusion.

Had this face been marred or scarred, had it been ugly or even merely pretty, Bertrand, the bachelor, would have at once forgotten his sweet love fantasy from Le Vésinet to St. Lazare, and relapsed into a superficial perusal of his newspaper. Had the face been that of a loose woman, the commonplace contrast between frivolous mouth and mourning attire might have provoked Bertrand, the bachelor, to seek just another adventure. The face, however, was neither of merely average beauty nor depraved. It was dominated by very dark and luminous eyes. Yet the eyes in this young face, despite their radiance, were evil and old. And they were (why?) accusingly directed upon Bertrand.

He withstood her gaze, though a feeling of discomfort pervaded him. Did the eyes of this woman pronounce the final verdict against him? Instead of the tardy chance of his lifetime, had he stumbled upon the ‘little death’ in the person of this viciously reading girl? No, it was a different hostility that struck him from these dark eyes which corroded and stabbed him. One thing he had clearly felt in his dreams: the hostility of her family against his kind, a hostility instinct in the girl. The waspish bourgeois character, he thought, full of calculating vulgarity and injured introversion. Even the ethereal figure, so strangely moving but two seconds ago, suddenly assumed a different significance. She was translucent and delicately proportioned — but in the same way that insects are, and her gaze was like a barbed insect bite. All the poison she had imbibed with the sentimental sweetness of Par l’amour she now spurted over to him, recognizing in him the enemy. She was defending Par l’amour against his arrogance. Between him and Par l’amour no bond could be established, even with the best of intentions. All the incomprehensible hatred of an aloofness dressed up in mourning was concentrated in this unyielding gaze — a hatred in which the countless dead of the clan for whom one wore black year in, year out, had a part.

The accusing eyes did not waver from Bertrand. He, on his part, was ashamed to yield. And thus he returned the gaze with a thin and helpless smile. It was a complete defeat. Beyond doubt Bertrand’s tender fantasy of love and marriage had reflected itself in the mind of the girl, arousing her sneering opposition. For inside as well as between human beings ten thousand times as much takes place as they themselves may know. The great luminous eyes still did not spare Bertrand, the unmasked. Like old acquaintances before whom no dark corner is secure, they proclaimed their indictment. They wrought vengeance not merely for Bertrand’s self-centred vision — they suddenly and painfully made him aware of his entire questionable nature. . . .

A few minutes later the graceful figure in subdued mourning had disappeared into the crowds at the St. Lazare station. Bertrand thought: ‘I have fallen in love, married, lived in wedlock, and finally lost a long-drawn-out divorce action.’ And as he descended the steps to the subway he was surprised to feel a marked sense of relief.