Old People and the Things that Pass/Chapter XVI
THE garden was reached from the flat by a little terrace and two or three steps.
"You are too early to see it in its winter glory," said Ottilie. "You're much too early. Nature here sleeps all through the summer under the scorching sun."
"That's one long, long love-sleep," said Lot, with his arm in his sister's.
"Yes, one long love-sleep," Ottilie echoed. "At the beginning of the autumn, the heavy rains come. They may overcome us yet, suddenly. When they are past, then nature buds for the winter. That is so exquisite here. When, everywhere up in the north, there's not a leaf or flower to be seen, the ground here is dug up, grass is sown and the mimosa blossoms and the carnations and you get your violets. You're too early, but you can see one phase of the change. Look at my last summer roses, blooming in such mad, jolly disorder. And the heliotrope, delicious, eh? Yes, this one is still glorious. Look at my pears: did you ever see such big ones? How many are there? Three, four, five ... six. We'll pluck them; they're quite ripe: if they fall to the ground, the ants eat them in a moment ... Aldo! Aldo! Come here for a second.... Pluck a few pears, will you? I can't reach them, no more can Lot ... Elly, have you seen my grapes? Just look at my trelliswork of vines? It might be a pergola, mightn't it? And they're those raspberry-grapes, you know; you must taste them. Try this bunch: they're delicious .... We'll eat the pears presently, at lunch. They're like sweet, aromatic snow.... Here are figs for you: this is an old tree, but it still stands as a symbol of fruitfulness. Pick them for yourself, take as many as you like.... Here are my peaches.... How hot the sun is still! And everything's steaming: I love all that natural perfume. Those grapes sometimes drive me mad...."
She thrust a white arm out of the sleeve of her white gown among the hazy-blue bunches and picked and picked, more and more. It was a feast of gluttony, an orgy of grapes. Aldo picked the finest for Elly. Well past forty, in the tranquil calmness of his graceful strength he was plainly a man of warm passion, a southern man of passion, a tranquil, smiling and yet passionate nature. As he drew himself up lissomely, in his loose-fitting grey-flannel suit, and stretched his hands towards the highest bunches, the harmonious lines of his statuesquely handsome figure appeared sinewy and supple; and there was this contradiction in him, that he suggested a piece of classic sculpture in the costume of to-day. The smiling serenity of his regular, large-boned face also reminded Lot of busts which he had seen in Italy: the Hermes of the Vatican—no, Aldo was not so intelligent as that—the Antinous of the Capitol, but a manlier brother; the Wrestlers of the Braccio Nuovo, only not so young and more powerfully built.... Aldo's smile answered to Ottilie's smile and contained the tranquillity of a secure happinerss, of an intense moment of perfect human bliss. That moment was there, even if it were passing. That secure happiness was as the pressed bunch of grapes....
Lot felt that he was living his own ecstatic moment, felt that he was happy in Elly, but yet he experienced a certain jealousy because of the physical happiness in that very good-looking couple: there was something so primitive in it, something almost classical in this southern autumnal nature, among this superabundance of bursting fruits; and he knew for certain that he would never approach such happiness, physically, because he felt the north in his soul, however eagerly his soul might try to escape that north; because he felt the dread of the years that were to come; because his love for Elly was so very much one of sympathy and temperament; because his nature was lacking in vigorous sensuality. And it made him feel the want of something; and because of that want he was jealous, with all the jealousy which he had inherited from his mother...... They too, Aldo and Ottilie, felt no morbid melancholy, no sickly dread; and yet their happiness, however superabundant, had the sere tint of autumn, like all the nature around them. The glowing-copper leaves of the plane-trees blew suddenly over the vine-trellis, scattered by the rough, brusque hands of the gaily-gathering wind. A shudder passed through the disordered rose-bushes; a heavy-ripe pear fell to the ground. It was autumn; and neither Aldo nor Ottilie was young, really young. And yet they had found this; and who could tell what they had found before, each on a different path! Oh, that untrammelled happiness, that moment! ... Oh, how Lot felt his jealousy! ... Oh, how he longed to be like Aldo, so tall, so vigorous, handsome as a classical statue, so natural, a classical soul! ... To feel his blood rush madly through his veins I ... Oh, that north, which froze something inside him; that powerlessness to seize the moment with a virile hand; and the dread, the dread of what was to come: that horror of old age, while after all he was still young! ... He now looked at his wife; and suddenly his soul became quite peaceful. He loved her. Silent inward melancholy, dread: those were his portion; they couldn't be helped; they must be accepted with resignation. The headiness of rapture could overwhelm him for a, moment: it was not the true sphere of his happiness. It would intoxicate him: his blood was not rich enough for it. He loved, in so far as he was able; he was happy, in so far as he could be. It was that, after all: he had found what he wanted, he wished to be grateful. A tenderness for Elly flowed through him so intensely: he felt that his soul was the sister-soul to hers. Superabundance was not for him; and the pressure of the things that passed had always weighed upon him and always hindered him from flinging his two arms riotously round life....
He threw away the stalk of his bunch of grapes and followed Aldo, who was calling to him, indoors. The Italian took his arm with a movement of sympathy:
"Ottilie's going to sing," he said. "Your wife has asked her to."
His French had the sensual softness of his too southern accent.
Ottilie was already singing, to her own accompaniment, in the drawing-room. Her rich voice, schooled to the spaciousness of large halls, swelled to a pure stream of sound, made the air quiver even in the garden with notes heavy with happiness. It was an Italian song, by a composer whom Lot did not know; and it provided an illusion as though Ottilie were improvising the song at the moment. There was a single phrase, which opened softly, rippled with laughter and melted away swooning, like a nymph in a faun's arms.
"Another time, perhaps I'll sing you something serious," said Ottilie. "This is only a single cry: a cry of life, nothing more....."
They sat down to lunch. The sun, which had scorched them, the wind, which had covered them with rough kisses, had given them an appetite; and the saffron bouillabaisse stimulated their palates lustily. On the side-board the fruit lay heaped in large, plain baskets and represented autumn's lavish abundance indoors as well.
"Lot," said Elly, suddenly, "I don't know what it is, but I suddenly feel the south."
"We poor northerners!" said Lot. "Ottilie and Aldo: they feel the south."
"But so do I!" said Elly.
"Nice is a novitiate for you, Elly, before you get to Italy!" said Ottilie. "Do you actually feel the south here? In the air?"
"Yes, in the air ... and in myself, in myself...."
"Well, we have tropical blood in us," said Ottilie. "Why shouldn't we feel the south at once? Aldo could never feel the north: he went to Stockholm with me when I was singing there."
"Didn't you feel the north, in the air?" asked Lot.
"Sicuro." said Aldo. "I found it cold and bleak, but then it was winter. I felt no more in it than that. You northerners feel things more sensitively. We feel perhaps ... more brutally and fully. We have redder blood. You have the gift of feeling nuances. We haven't. When I feel, I feel entirely. When Ottilie feels a thing now, she also feels it like that. But she was not always so."
"Aldo is making a southerner of me!" said Ottilie. "He is wiping out all my nuances!"
Outside, the mistral rose and raged in a whirl of glowing-copper plane-leaves.
"That's autumn," said Ottilie.
"Turning into winter," said Lot.
"But winter here is life again, renewed. Life is renewed daily. Every day that comes is new life."
"So no dying, but everlasting resurrection?" asked Lot, with a smile.
"No dying, everlasting resurrection!"
Her voice rang out defiantly. Oh, to embrace the moment ... with virile strength! It was not for him, thought Lot. But what there was was tender happiness. If only it remained so! If only he were not left behind, lonely, alone and old, now that he had known tender happiness! ... He looked at his wife. The topaz-coloured wine sent a sparkle to her eyes and a flush over her usual pallor; she was joking with Aldo and Ottilie, was gayer than Lot had ever seen her; she became almost pretty and began boldly to talk Italian to Aldo, spinning out whole sentences which he corrected with his quiet laugh.
"Who knows," thought Lot, "what she may yet feel? She is twenty-three. She is very fond of me; and, before she came to love me, she had known sorrow, because of another love. Who can tell what the years may bring? Oh, but this is a divine moment, these days are perhaps forming the most heavenly moment of my life! Let me never forget them.... I am happy, so far as I can be happy. And Elly must be feeling happy too.... She is breathing again.... It is as though an oppression had gone over her and as though she were breathing again. She lived too long with the old man. The past is an oppression in his house. It is an oppression at Grandmamma's. It is an oppression even with us, at home, because of Mamma ... Life does not renew itself there. It dies away, it passes; and the melancholy of it depresses even us, the young people.... Oh, Elly will not be really happy until she is in Italy!... This is only an intoxication, delicious, but too full and brutal for our senses; and there ... there, when we are working together, we shall find glad happiness: I know it! Glad happiness in a country not so sensual as Nice, but more intelligent and dusted exquisitely with the bloom of the dead past. ... Yes, we shall be in harmony there and happy and we shall work together...."
Aldo was opening the champagne; and Lot whispered:
"You felt the south just now?"
"Yes ... oh, Lot, beyond a doubt!"
"Well, I ... I feel happiness!"
She squeezed his hand; a smile played around her lips. She also would never forget this moment of her life, whatever else those future years might bring: with her northern soul of sadness, she felt the south and her happiness ... and what passed they did not see.....