Pierre and Luce/7
The weather caused an interruption to the lunches by the fountain of the sparrows. Fogs came to obscure the February sun. But they could not snuff out the one they carried in their hearts. Ah! all the bad weather you could wish might be on hand: cold, hot, rain, wind, snow or sun! Everything would be well, always. And even, things would be better. For when happiness is in its period of growth the very finest of all the days is always today.
The fog offered them a benevolent pretext not to separate during a portion of the day. Less risk that way of being observed. In the morning he went to wait for her at the arrival of the train and he accompanied her in her walks about Paris. He had the collar of his overcoat turned up. She wore a fur toque, her boa rolled in a chilly way up to her chin, her little veil tightly tied on, which her lips pushed out and made in it a small round relief. But the best veil was the moist network of the protective mist. The mist was like a curtain of ashes, dense, grayish, with phosphorescent spots. One could not see farther than ten yards. It became thicker and thicker as they passed down the old streets perpendicular to the Seine. Friendly fog, in which a dream stretches itself between ice-cold linen and shudders with delight! They were like the almond in the shell of the nut, like a flame enclosed in a dark lantern. Pierre held the left arm of Luce closely pressed to him; they walked with the same step, almost of the same stature, she a trifle taller, twittering in a halfvoice, their figures quite close together; he would have liked to kiss the little moist round on her veil.
She was going to the shopman who sold "false antiques"—who had ordered them—to dispose of her "turnips," her "little beets" as she called them. They were never in a great hurry to reach the place and without doing so on purpose (at least that is what they insisted) took the longest way about, putting their mistake to the debit of the fog. When at last, nevertheless, the place came to meet them despite all the efforts made to get it off the track, Pierre stayed at a distance. She entered the shop. He waited at the corner of the street. He waited a long time and he was not very warm. But he was glad to wait and not to be warm and even to be bored, because it was all for her. At last she came out again and quick, quick she skipped up to him, smiling, tender, in great disquiet lest he be frozen. He saw in her eyes when she had succeeded and then he rejoiced over it as if it were he who had made the money. But most often she came back to him empty handed; it was necessary to return to the shop two or three days in succession in order to obtain her pay. Very happy she, if they did not give her back the object ordered accompanied by rebukes! Today for instance they had made a great fuss on account of a miniature painted from the photograph of an honest fellow deceased, whom she had never seen. The family was indignant because she had not given him the exact colors of his eyes and hair. It was necessary to do it all over again. Since she was disposed rather to look at the comic side of her misadventures, she laughed courageously about it. But Pierre did not laugh. He was furious.
"Idiots! Triple idiots!"
When Luce showed him the photographs which she had to copy in colors he thundered in his disdain (Oh, how amused she was at his comical fury!) at these heads of imbeciles, frozen in solemn smiles. That the dear eyes of his Luce should have to apply themselves to reproducing and her hands to tracing the pictures of these mugs seemed to him a profanation. No, it was too revolting! Copies from the museums were more worth while. But one could not count on them any more. The last museums had shut their doors and no longer interested her clients. It was no longer the hour for Virgin Maries and angels, only for the poilus. Every family had its own, dead or alive, oftener dead, and wanted to eternalize his features. The wealthier ones wanted colors: work paid for well enough, but beginning to be scarce; it was needful for her not to be capricious. Lacking which, all that remained for the time being was the enlarging of photographs at laughable prices.
The clearest point in all of this was that she no longer had any reason to spend her time in Paris: no more copies in the museum; all that was needed being, to go to the shop to collect and bring back the orders every two or three days; the work itself could be done at home. That was not exactly what the two children liked. They continued to stroll about the streets, unable to decide on taking up the way to the station. Since they felt weary and the icy fog pierced them through, they went into a church; and there, seated most properly in the corner of a chapel, they talked in low voices about the little commonplace affairs of their life while they looked at the stained-glass windows. From time to time there fell a silence; and their souls, delivered from mere words (it was not the meaning in the words that interested them but their breath of life, like the furtive contacts between quivering antennae) their souls pursued another dialogue more solemn and profound. The dreams in the colored windows, the shadows cast by the piers, the droning of the hymns mingled with their dream, evoked the sorrowful facts of life which they desired to forget and the consoling homesickness of the infinite. Although it was nearly eleven o'clock, a yellowish twilight brimmed the nave like the oil of a sacred cruet. From on high and from a great distance came strange gleams, the sombre purple of a window, a red pool on violet ones, indistinct figures encircled by their black settings. Against the high wall of night the blood-like gleam of light made a wound. . . .
Abruptly Luce remarked:
"Shall you have to be taken?"
He understood at once what she meant for in the silence his spirit too had pursued the same obscure trail.
"Yes," he said. "We mustn't talk of it."
"Only one thing. Tell me when?"
He told her:
"In six months."
"We mustn't think of it any more. What use would it be?"
"Yes, what use?"
They drew long breaths in order to push back the thought. Then courageously (or should one say to the contrary "timorously"? Let him who knows decide where true courage lies!) they both compelled themselves to talk of something else—of the stars of the candles, trembling in a reek, of the organ playing a prelude. Of the beadle who was passing. Of the box full of surprises which her handbag was, in which the indiscreet fingers of Pierre were rummaging. They had a very passion of amusing themselves with nothings. Neither one nor the other of these poor little creatures so much as considered the shadow of an idea of escaping from that destiny which must separate them. To make any resistance against the war, to brave the current of a nation: as well to lift up the church which covered them with its shell! The only recourse was to forget, to forget up to the last second, while hoping at bottom that this last second would never arrive. Until then, to be happy.
After they went out, while chatting, she pulled him by the arm in order to cast a glance at a shopfront, which they had just passed. A shoe shop. He found his gaze caressing tenderly a pair of fine leather shoes, tall and laced up.
"Pretty, eh?" said he.
He laughed at the expression and she laughed also.
"Wouldn't they be too big?"
"No, just a fit."
"Well, then, suppose one bought them?"
She pressed his arm and pulled him on so as to tear him away from the sight.
"One has to belong to the wealthy" (humming the air of Dansons la capucine. . . .) "But they're not for us."
"Why not? Cinderella put the slipper on all right!"
"At that time there were fairies still."
"In the present time there are lovers still."
"Non, non, nenni, mon petit ami!"
"Why so, since we are friends?"
"Just for that reason."
"Yes, because one cannot accept things from a friend."
"Then perhaps—from an enemy?"
"Rather from a stranger; my shopman, for instance, if he wanted to advance me a payment, the robber!"
"But, Luce, I certainly have the right to order from you a painting, if I wish?"
She stopped, to burst out laughing.
"You, a painting by me? My poor friend, what could you do with it? You have gained a good deal of merit already, just for having looked at them. I know well enough that they are croûtes. They would stick in your throat."
"Not at all! Some of them are very cunning. And besides, if they suit my taste?"
"It's certainly changed since yesterday."
"Isn't it allowable to change one's taste?"
"No, not when one's a friend."
"Luce, do my portrait!"
"Well, well, now; his portrait!"
"Why, it's very serious. I'm as good as those idiots . . ."
She squeezed his arm in an unthinking burst:
"What was that you said?"
"I didn't say anything."
"I heard you all right."
"Well then, keep it for yourself!"
"No, I shan't keep it. I'll give it back to you double. . . . Darling! . . . Darling! You'll do my portrait, won't you? It's settled?"
"Have you a photo?"
"No, I have not."
"Then what do you expect? I can't paint you in the street, I suppose."
"You told me that at home you were alone almost every day."
"Yes, the days mama works at the factory. . . . But I don't dare . . ."
"You are afraid, then, that we shall be seen?"
"No, that's not the reason. We have no neighbors."
"Well, then, what is it you're afraid of?"
She did not reply.
They were come to the square before the tramway station. Although all about them were people who were waiting, they were hardly to be seen, the fog continued to isolate the little couple. She evaded his eyes. He took her two hands and said tenderly:
"My darling, don't be afraid . . ."
She lifted her eyes and they gazed at each other. Their eyes were so loyal!
"I trust you," said she.
She closed her eyes. She felt that she was sacred to him.
They let go hands. The tram was about to start. Pierre's gaze questioned Luce.
"What day?" he demanded.
"Thursday," she replied. "Come about two."
At the moment of parting she regained her roguish smile; she whispered in his ear:
"And you must bring your photo just the same. I am not strong enough to paint without the photo. . . . Yes, yes, I know you have some, you naughty little humbug."