Pierre Rouville was crossing the pontoon; the steamer from Como to Collico had just stopped at the Bellagio quay. A pack of facchini was fighting over his suitcase, he pointed out one whose cap bore the name of a well-known hotel in gold letters, the very one he had chosen on the recommendation of the Baedeker; he gave the man his kit and his baggage check. Discarded, he looked around him. He only saw shops set up under heavy arches and the facades of large hotels. The charm of the landscape had vanished. This dream Bellagio appeared like an enchanted peninsula on the fluid waters of moire and mother-of-pearl of two lakes, this[Pg 284] a promontory of greenery, erected like a spur against a misty and fleeing mountain background, was nothing more than a cluster of new constructions and Italian buildings, regularly intersected by narrow viccoli. On the quay of the women in light-colored toilets, many white pique suits crowded together, attracted there by the arrival of the boat, a rather ugly cosmopolitan crowd, dominated by the German note given by men in calves, jackets in greenish cloth and wearing glaucous felt-tip pens with edelweiss ribbons, the whole descent of the Engadine and the Tyrolean Alps, and Pierre Rouville could not restrain a grimace.
A two-horse carriage stopped in the middle of the hotel omnibuses, a woman lazing around, casually stretched out on Liberty silk cushions, evidently supplied by her, for the victoria was hired and the young man could not restrain a cry. : “Jacqueline Hérelle …”; but his astonishment quickly changed into a smile: “Parbleu!” she hides something here[Pg 285] new love is an incorrigible lover, a belated romantic. I’m going to embarrass her for sure, let’s not show ourselves ”but the actress had seen it. The magnetism of the gaze on her had warned her. Fixed by the young man, the nervous one, Jacqueline, had naturally turned her eyes towards him; she was waving her parasol happily in the direction of Rauville, she had recognized him.
The painter approached, hat in hand, the victoria: “You too,” she said, holding out her hand, “all of Paris in Bellagio, then! You arrive, I have been there for eight days. Huh! what a wonderful country! it is an intoxication which grows hour by hour, you will undergo its charm like me, one would never want to leave it. Which hotel are you staying at?
“You’ll be fine there.
“And you,” said Rouville, “is it indiscreet to ask you?”
-Oh! I am in the middle of nature, almost[Pg 286] in the mountain, very high, at the villa Serbelloni, in front of the two lakes, an admirable view, you will see.
-And alone? ventured the young man with a half-smile.
“Alone, of course, alone. Oh! my poor friend, you may have thought, but look at me, it would be madness at my age. ”
Jacqueline Hérelle was no longer young. Despite the delicacy of a profile that remained admirably delicate and precise, the artifice of the powders and makeup did not erase the wrinkles of the temples, the painful folds of the mouth, or those more pronounced on the neck. . The red-touched nostrils were still young and vibrant, but the weariness of the smile and the bruised blue of the eyelids denounced the wear and tear of age and the fatigue of living. Jacqueline Hérelle had been adorably pretty. Young, she had been one of those triumphant beauties whose adventures fill and revolutionize an era … The adventures and the connections of Jacqueline, we[Pg 287] recounted them, but we no longer counted them, a famous rejected journalist had said of her. Her success had not only been boudoirs, Jacqueline had also obtained some at the theater, but it was above all the pretty woman who had been applauded there. As an actress, she was far superior to the city. She had always been lavishly maintained, but venal and prized as she was, she had also had quirks. She was above all a lover: she gave royally to whomever she liked what she made bankers and politicians pay so dearly to please her, she had lived on love and as she grew older had not renounced it. . Retired ten years from the theater, she had had for her pleasure a number of relationships, some of which had not turned to her advantage; some of his friends from[Pg 288] that love has become a market there. Beauty is much less valuable than inspired desire, lust is immediately taxed and in the world, from the top to the bottom of the ladder, any being, man or woman, who feels loved, takes it. the frightful and commercial soul of a merchant of curiosities. Once fragile and ruinous alcove trinket, Jacqueline Hérelle had known, at her expense, how much love costs in Paris.
It is all this past and much more that Pierre Rouville evoked in himself while looking at the woman seated in this victoria: “She is well fifty years old, even more”, he thought in a low voice. The point is, he found her strangely devastated despite the rusty and gold tones of heavy, expertly nuanced hair. She seemed aged to him, as though disintegrated in her body, which had remained thin, and which was nothing but thinness. The courtesan read in his eyes:
“When you have finished examining me,[Pg 289] Monsieur the Auctioneer! Sad, eh, the inventory! you count the waste and the tares ”.
The young man cried out. “Do not defend yourself, come on, the mirrors lie, but the looks of passers-by do not deceive us. Go to your hotel, you are starving and me too, it’s lunchtime and come see me tomorrow around eleven o’clock, Villa Serbelloni, you will find me outside on the terrace, you will understand why I went down there. You will see, my friend, if it is admirable. In Bellagio you can’t live anywhere else. ”
The next day, around half past ten, Pierre Rouville attempted the ascent indicated. Narrow and ascending streets, then rather steep stairs and slopes, led him to the gate of the villa. Una read from the start gave him access to it; a ramp flowered with jasmines, then escorted by a trellis, helped him to climb the slopes of the mountain; he then sank into the shade of a park. There he found the actress[Pg 290] lying on a rocking chair near a marble balustrade. Jacqueline Hérelle was waiting for him on the hotel terrace. At its feet, the shrubs and rare flowers of a garden in Italy were staged, one would have said, on immense steps; on the horizon, it was the nostalgic and blue flight of two lakes, damp and fuzzy sapphires set in mountains of vapors.
The magic of these lakes! the courtesan had not lied. The sun, already high in the sky, made them pale azure, the steep and bold mountains, as if evaporated from heat, surrounded them with a wall of mauve mist, jagged and haughty. And the painter was haunted by collections of paintings by Vinci already admired in Museums: vaporetti and boats crisscrossed the lake on the right, and white villas swarmed on its banks like doves fallen there, exhausted with languor, all the lake at the bottom was moiré of a great shadow … From the terraces of the garden heady and delicious odors rose; the syringas swooning under the sun mingled their[Pg 291] heavy vanilla breath to other vegetable souls with loving fervor. Jacqueline Hérelle turned towards him a face buried in an immense white hat and, stretching her hand over her shoulder, without even hearing from him, pointed out to him with a glance the lake on the left and as if she had guessed his impression. .
“This one is the most beautiful. Look at him, what nostalgia! The sadness and abandonment of a haunted lake, and that sudden tearing of rocks over there, doesn’t seem to open up on a fairy land! Ah! this sorry Lecco, I cannot tire of looking at him, it is like an opium of melancholy. It intoxicates me and numbs me in such softness. ”
The lake sank, in fact, absolutely deserted, without a sail, into the abrupt solitude of mountains so high that clouds crowned them: sunny solitude, which the torpor of noon made even more gloomy. Jacqueline Hérelle had said it well; it was the sadness and abandonment of a haunted lake.
There was a silence.
“How are you this morning? suddenly abrupted the actress.
“Very well, and you should ask yourself …”
-Oh! I am doing my cure, I bathe here in dreams and in the sun. Isn’t the place beautiful? you see, my dear friend, it is only nature that consoles everything. We can only grow old by gradually detaching ourselves from individuals. What is the use of clinging to what is detached from us. Nature always welcomes us: the skies, the wide horizons, the changing enchantment of lakes and mountains and the infinite poem of the sea, this is what you have to love when you are over fifty years old.
“But you haven’t …
-Yes. I have them, my friends give me more (and with a heartbreaking smile). You asked me yesterday if I was alone here, but look at this setting. Who is the man who could resist this frame[Pg 293] and impose itself in this splendor! he would need a god, and his companion would need dazzled eyes of twenty years!
“You forget, dear friend, that love is blind.
“No, he is only blinded and by desire, which is clairvoyant”. And how the young man was silent a little embarrassed by the turn of the interview.
-Oh! I didn’t get there on the first try, and my exile in Bellagio is the result of some hardship. I finally resigned myself like many others, but not like all the others. For ten years I stubbornly persisted. I too thought I was still young. Resignation is an old woman’s virtue ….. yes, my friend, and Jacqueline Hérelle grew a little animated, I loved love, love loved me and I still love her, but I am a romantic, you don’t believe it, I, Jacqueline Hérelle, and in the briefest adventure I cannot separate sensation from sentiment.
Yes, it is so … Lucy Kerdor, who is eight[Pg 294] years older than me, welcomes and nurtures in her villa in Triel a vigorous and muscular youth, familiar with all sports and who, it seems, does not sell her sensations: velodrome racers and car drivers find at home good food, good lodging and the rest. During four months of summer Lucy Kerdor lodges all these people, Lucy is absolutely mistress in the island which she inhabits, and in the country one calls her park the Island of Love. Lucy Kerdor is rich, our fortunes are equal, but I could not do as Lucy Kerdor: my heart would lift. Catherine Hémery, who is two years younger than me, has not been able to keep the millions acquired: the last cracks have ruined her. Reduced to an income of six thousand francs, she pricks herself with morphine and, night and day, asks for visions of the opium which intoxicate, visions recalled, for Catherine Hémery remained a creature of love. When she comes to me, her eyes shining and her face all puffed up with her drugs, I reproach her for her vice: “What do you want, afterwards?”[Pg 295] three bites they come back again. God is so good, he sends me dreams »…….
Me, dreams would exhaust me, I am of Basque origin, I love realities … Between their repugnance and the lie of dreams, I opted for solitude.
“After a few disappointments? risked the young man.
“Indeed, it was my last attempt that decided everything. No more than two months ago, dear friend, I was still in love. Despite my fifty years, I loved madly, passionately with the outbursts of a young girl and the ardor of a courtesan, I finally loved as Jacqueline Hérelle knows how to love, a young cavalry officer in garrison at Saint-Cloud. I will spare you his name and his physique, I loved him. At the end of May, I came to settle, as you know, at my villa in Ville-d’Avray; I had met Robert at the Blue Flag. I sometimes go to dinner there to break up the monotony of the evenings; my elegance, the silkiness of my underwear,[Pg 296] or had my bad name impressed him. In any case, I had fallen in love at first sight, Robert at first responded fairly well to my advances, he accepted my invitations to dinner, was soon in our car parts, threshing the woods in my company. Marly and Versailles, in short, he became one of my regulars.
Very correct, could not be more kind and even eager to me, Robert nevertheless did not go further in his flirtation, me day by day, I felt his charm more deeply. Deep down, I was devouring myself with anguish and consuming myself with desire. “That boy,” Catherine Hémery told me, “he always kisses your fingers, he cares for your rings.” As Robert has sixty thousand francs a year and will have twice as much one day, I shrug my shoulders. It was neither for my luxury nor for my dinners that Robert came to my house, the officers of his regiment had told me he was shy. Enervated, at the end of fireworks and expedients,[Pg 297] I was using a stratagem. I was expecting her that day around five o’clock to have tea. It was in July, the heat was oppressive, I had taken out in his honor the most delicious bathrobe and, scented, still fresh from the tub, I had placed on a pedestal table, within reach of my hand, two or three photographs representing me, bare shoulders, in the most suggestive poses, photographs dating twenty years ago, Jacqueline Hérelle in her roles of yesteryear. My portraits thus arranged, I lowered the blinds in the small living room and stretched out on my lounge chair.
Oh! the sudden start of my whole being; when he entered! Robert kissed my hand and sat down next to me. Mechanically and instinctively too, because I wanted to and my gaze directed his, he noticed the photographs. He leaned curiously on the table: Oh! the pretty woman! he said interested, and he looked at the portraits for a long time. He had taken them one after the other and kept them for a long time[Pg 298] in his hands, I was no longer breathing. There was a dreadful silence.
-Who is it, he asked suddenly, he had turned to me … Who is it?
I stiffened against the shock.
-A friend. She’s been dead twenty years, wasn’t she adorable? You would have loved her, right?
And he unconsciously:
“Was she really like that?
“So, she was one of the most desirable women I’ve ever seen…”, and he was looking at her again.
“Oh! the shape of those eyes, the design of that mouth and those shoulders, what nudity! Was she at the theater?
“Yes, she was a comrade, but above all she was a pretty woman. As a talent …
“Do we need talent with that face?
That was all; the next day I was packing my trunks.[Pg 299] I have not seen Robert again and I will never see him again. He did not recognize me, and that is why I am here, my dear friend, in front of these lakes, alone in the enchantment of Bellagio and this villa.