Pierre and Luce/6
Tomorrow! . . . Those who come after us will have some difficulty in understanding what silent despair and weariness of spirit without grounds that word evoked during the fourth year of the war. . . . Oh, such a weariness! So many times had hopes been destroyed! Hundreds of tomorrows just like yesterday and today followed on, each similarly devoted to emptiness and waiting—to waiting for emptiness. Time no longer ran. The year was like a river Styx which encircles life with the circuit of its black and greasy waters, with its somber, watery, silky flood that seems no longer to move. Tomorrow? Tomorrow is dead.
In the hearts of these children Tomorrow was resuscitated from the grave.
Tomorrow saw them seated again near the fountain. And tomorrows followed one another. The fine weather favored these very brief meetings, every day a little less brief. Each one brought a lunch in order to have the pleasure of exchanging. Pierre now waited at the door of the Museum. He wanted to see her art works. Although she was not proud of them she did not make him beg at all before showing them. They were reproductions of famous paintings in miniature, or portions of paintings, a group, a figure, a bust. Not too disagreeable at the first glance but extremely loose in drawing. Here and there quite true and pretty touches; but right alongside the mistakes of a pupil, exhibiting not merely the most elementary ignorance but a reckless ease perfectly careless of what anyone might think.—"Enough! Good enough the way they are!"—Luce recited the names of the pictures copied. Pierre knew them too well. His face was quite drawn from his discomfiture. Luce felt that he was not pleased; but she summoned all her courage to show him everything—and this one too. . . . Woof! . . . it was the ugliest one she had! ? She kept up her mocking smile which was directed to her own address as well as to Pierre's; but she would not confess to herself a pinch of vexation. Pierre hardened his lips in order not to speak. But at last it was too much for him. She showed him a copy of a Florentine Raphael.
"But these are not its colors!" said he.
"Oh, well, that wouldn't be surprising," said she. "I didn't go and look at it. I took a photo."
"And didn't anybody object?"
"Who? My clients? They haven't been to look at it either. . . . And besides, even if they had seen it, they don't look so narrowly! The red, the green, the blue—they only see the fire in it. Sometimes I copy the original in colors, but I change the colors. . . . See here, for instance, this one . . ." (An angel by Murillo).
"Do you find it's better?"
"No, but it amused me. . . . And then, it's easier. . . . And besides, it's all the same to me. The essential thing is that this will sell. . . ."
At this last piece of boasting she stopped, took the color sketches from him and burst out laughing.
"Ha! So they're even uglier than you had expected?"
He said, greatly annoyed:
"But why, why do you make things like these?"
She examined his upset visage with a kindly smile of maternal irony; this dear little bourgeois for whom everything had been so easy and who could not conceive that one must make concessions for . . .
He asked once more:
"Why? Tell me, why?"
(He was quite crestfallen, as if it was he who was the botcher in paint! . . . Dear little boy! She would have liked to kiss him . . . very properly, on his forehead!)
She answered gently:
"Why, in order to live."
He was quite overcome. He had never dreamed of it.
"Life is complicated," she went on in a light and mocking tone. "In the first place it is necessary to eat, and then to eat every day. In the evening one has dined. It's necessary to begin again the next day. And then it's necessary to dress oneself. Dress oneself completely, body, head, hands, feet. That's so far as clothing is concerned! And then pay for it all. For everything. Life, it's just paying."
For the first time he saw what had escaped the shortsightedness of his love: the modest fur in some places worn, the shoes somewhat the worse for wear, the traces of embarrassed means which the natural elegance of a little Parisian woman makes one forget. And his heart contracted within him.
"Ah! couldn't I be allowed, couldn't I be permitted to help you?"
She moved away from him a bit and reddened:
"No, no," she returned, much upset, "there's no question of that. . . . Never! . . . I have no need . . ."
"But it would make me so happy!"
"No. . . . Nothing more to be said about that. Or we shall not be friends any more . . ."
"We are friends, then?"
"Yes. That's to say, if you are so still after you have seen these horrible daubs?"
"Surely, surely! It isn't your fault."
"But do they trouble you?"
She laughed out contentedly.
"That makes you laugh, naughty girl!"
"No, it's not being naughty. You do not understand."
"Then why do you laugh?"
"I shan't tell you."
(She was thinking: "Love! how kind you are to be troubled because I have done something that is ugly!")
She went on:
"You are so kind. Thank you."
(He looked at her with astonished eyes.)
"Don't try to understand," said she, tapping him softly on his hand. . . . "There, let's talk of something else. . . ."
"Yes. But one word more. . . . Still, I could wish to know. . . . Tell me (and don't be hurt) . . . Are you at the present moment a bit strapped?"
"No, no, I told you that just now, because there have been now and then hard times. But now it goes much better. Mama has found a situation where she is well paid."
"Your mother is at work?"
"Yes, in a munitions factory. She gets twelve francs a day. It's a fortune."
"In a factory! A war factory!"
"Why, it's frightful!"
"Oh, well! One takes what offers!"
"Luce! but if you, you should have such an offer? . . ."
"Oh, me? You see yourself, I just daub. Ah! You perceive now that I have good reason to make my smears!"
"But if it were necessary to have money and there were no other way than to work in one of those factories that produce bombshells, would you go?"
"If it were necessary to make money and no other means? . . . Why, surely! I would run for it."
"Luce! Do you realize what it is they're doing in there?"
"No, I don't think about it."
"Everything that will make people suffer, die, that tears them to pieces, that burns, that tortures beings like you, like me . . ."
She put her hand on her mouth to signal to him to hush.
"I know, I know all that, but I don't want to think of it."
"You don't want to think about it?"
"No," said she.
And a moment after:
"One must live. . . . If one thinks about it, one cannot live any more. For myself I want to live, I want to live. If they compel me to do that in order to live, shall I torment myself on this account or on that? That's no business of mine; it isn't I that wants it. If it is wrong it is not my fault, not my own. As for me, what I want is nothing bad."
"And what is it you do want?"
"First of all I want to live."
"You love life?"
"Why, of course. Am I wrong in that?"
"Oh, no! It is so jolly that you do live. . . ."
"And you, you don't love it also?"
"I did not, up to the time . . ."
"Up to the time?"
(This question did not call for an answer. Both of them knew it.)
Following up his thought, Pierre:
"You just said 'first of all.' . . . 'I want to live, first of all.' . . . And what then? What else do you wish?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do know . . . "
"You are very indiscreet."
"It embarrasses me to tell you . . ."
"Tell me in my ear. No one will overhear."
"I would like . . ." (she hesitated).
"I would like just a little bit of happiness . . ."
(They were quite close the one to the other.)
She went on:
"Is that too much to ask? . . . They have often told me that I'm an egotist; and as for me, I sometimes say to myself: What has one a right to? When one sees so many wretchednesses, so much pain about one, you hardly dare to ask. . . . But in spite of all my heart does insist and cries out: Yes, I have the right, I have the right to a very little portion of happiness . . . Tell me very frankly, is that being an egotist? Do you think that wrong?"
He was overcome by an infinite pity. That cry of the heart, that poor little naïve cry stirred him down to his soul. Tears came to his eyes. Side by side on the bench, leaning one against the other, they felt the warmth of their legs. He would have liked to turn toward her and take her in his arms. He did not dare move for fear of not remaining in control of his emotion. Immovable, they looked straight forward at the ground before their feet. Very swiftly, in a low ardent voice, almost without moving his lips, he said:
"Oh, my darling little body! Oh, my heart! Would I could hold your little feet in my hands, upon my mouth. . . . I would like to eat you all . . ."
Without budging and very low and very quickly, just as he had spoken, she replied full of trouble: "Crazy! Foolish boy! Silence! I beg of you . . ."
A stroller-by of a certain age limped slowly past them. They felt their two bodies melt together with tenderness. . . .
Nobody left on the walk. A sparrow with ruffled feathers was dusting itself in the sand. The fountain shed its lucent droplets. Timidly their faces turned one toward the other; and scarcely had their eyes met each other, when like the rush of birds their mouths met, frightened and closely pressed—and then they flew apart. Luce sprang up, departed. He also had risen. She said to him: "Stay here."
They did not dare to look at one another any longer. He murmured:
"Luce! That little bit . . . that little bit of happiness . . . say, now we have it!"