It was Corpus Christi Day.
Since early morning the old bells had been tolling.O bells, bells, bells, my bells that ring,
What divine reproaches you must bring...
But too much in contrast with the divine bells were certain mean-spirited rivalties. There was, of course, to be a procession, and the main square was its most important stop, and on this square every year the two hotels, the Hôtel d'Angleterre and the Hôtel de France renewed the painful rivalries of Waterloo and the Grand-Prix, in the decoration of their altarpieces.
Public opinion (vox populi, vox Dei) for a second time had given the palm to the Hôtel d'Angleterre.
And understandably so, for besides the classical arrangement on the copper-rodded carpeting of four holy pictures with flower stands and candelabra ablaze in the June sunlight, this lair of Albion's sons exhibited, in a confusion of palm fans at the top of the steps, a Saint Theresa, patron saint of the town, whose hysterical rococo polychrome corrupted the eye. The Hôtel de France, on the other hand, hadn't been able to think of anything better to do than intensify its floral orgy of the preceding year.
On the third side of the square, the palace of the Duchess H. interposed, for the maintenance of good form and the edification of the masses, the superior serenity of an altar of its own, three escritoires supporting, among peonies and peacock feathers and pink candies, between a Holy Family of Tiepolo and a Mary Magdalen attributed to Lucas Cranach, the lady's coat of arms embroidered on a shield of amaranthine plush.
No matter, it was with one voice that the town proclaimed England's victory--brutal victory that it was, a tawdry triumph of impressionist paganism to be dearly paid for in the .next world.
Whereas the altar of the Hôtel de France--without my discussing the pertinence of its charming display of non-spinning lilies-was destined to be the setting for a more aesthetic second edition of the Miracle of the Roses.
Yes, the legendary Miracle of the Roses!
Or so it was at least in the eyes of her who was its heroine, a touching and symbolical creature, snatched away too early from the affection of her family and the dilettantism of her friends.
On the main square (the principal station of the Corpus Christi procession, where the Hôtel d'Angleterre and the Hôtel de France are renewing the painful rivalries of Waterloo and the GrandPrix) already a few flashy foreigners, instead of cultivating their immortal souls and so forth, are lounging about with simple townspeople.
How pretty it all is in the broad June sun, but ah, look! A creature of twilight has just come upon the scene.
"Are you comfortable there, Ruth?"
Under a colonnade at the hotel entrance, the young invalid reclines primly on her chaise lounge, her brother Patrick covers her with plaids while a gold-buttoned porter, whose obsequiousness merits a slap in the face, arranges a folding screen on her left.
Patrick sits down at his sister's side. He holds her handkerchief diaphanous as perfume, her box of orange cachoo, her fan, that ironic and sad caprice of the last hour, her flask of real musk, that last consolation of the dying. He holds these tragic stage properties of his sister's constantly at the service of her every glance, a glance already reinitiated in the original heights out there beyond life (life, that diet of oblivion), a glance busy at the moment in meditating on the light and shadow of hands with tragic pearl-tipped fingers--her own.
Ruth has never been married or betrothed, but a wedding ring, terribly thin, of course, graces the ring finger on one pearl-tipped hand--a further note of mystery.
O ideal deathbed maiden, too soon snatched away from the dilettantism of her friends, in her pleated iron-gray gown, her fur cape on her shoulders, and her high lace collar held by a thin gold coin stamped with three fleur-de-lys. Hair of red amber piled up on her forehead and elaborately braided in gentle coils on her fair neck, in the style of Julia Mammea; bewildered eyes, virtuous but wild; a greedy but bloodless little mouth, an expression whose loveliness is a little late in developing! A little late indeed in developing, for how could this waxen tint ever redden again in a lover's quarrel?
She speaks, probably just to hear her voice once more.
"The noise of that torrent will kill me..."
She refers, of course, to the waterfall there beside the hotel.
"Come now, Ruth, don't give yourself ideas."
To brighten her spirits, she fumbles among the pale tea roses (the doctor has forbidden her the blood-red variety) scattered on her black and white checkerboard rug. Then she ends as always by saying, although with a look of such delicate martyrdom that it dispels every suspicion of pose!
"Weak, Patrick, weak as a sachet that has lost its scent..."
They are brother and sister, but of different, very different, mothers. He is four years younger than she, a youth as noble as one of the fir trees of his native land. They have been living for the past two months in a secluded wing of the hotel.
"Weak, Patrick, weak as a sachet..."
Too pure to live, too nervous merely to scrape along, and too diamondlike to be scratched by existence, the inviolable Ruth like a sachet indeed empties herself from one winter resort to another, always following the sun, that lover of putrefaction, the graveyard, and the virgin waxdoll...
Last year saw the tubercular beauty in India, at Darjeeling, it was there that the spice of hallucination was added to her consumption. Although already withdrawn from the conflicts of this low bloodthirsty world, she found herself the only witness of a suicide one moonlit night in a garden. The only witness and, very much in spite of herself, the cause. And since that time in the thin blood coughed up from her own lungs, she thinks she beholds the red passionate blood of that enigmatical suicide; and at the sight of it so deeply imbued with concise and poignant things, she grows delirious.
Consumptive and delirious: no matter what may lie at the heart of all this romancing, the young lady is not here for long, as the servants express it in the kitchen and basement of the hotel; for there is no mercy below stairs.
And so, as in a dream that interrupts for a season or two his own travels and his own heroic development, the good Patrick follows with a fatalist's eye the dying, dying auroras of the fevered spots on his sister's cheeks, and the blood-red crescents in her handkerchief. He exists only to lean over her eyes, sometimes as bright as those of the wild Atlantic sea bird, sometimes lost in a coal-tar mist, to lean over the veins of her temples, blue as flashes of heat lightning, to serve her at table, to take her walking, to bring her every morning a pretty bouquet, never containing a black marigold, to show her pictures, play her little Norwegian pieces from an album of Kjerulf, to read to her in a clear fresh voice.
Now as they await the procession, to keep her mind off the vulgar gaping creatures who have gathered at the foot of the stair, Patrick is reading his sister the last pages of Séraphita.
"Like a white dove, a soul came to rest for a moment on this body..."
"What silly description," says Ruth. "No, it belongs decidedly to the low syrupy seraphic, that effort. It smells of Geneva where it was written. And this messenger of light with sword and helmet! Poor, poor Séraphita! No, Balzac with that bullneck of his could never have been your brother."
And Ruth with sublime reserve continues to fumble with one hand among the tea roses scattered over the black and white checkerboard of her rug, while the other plays with a strange enamel medallion whose esoteric presence seems to padlock her sexless breast.
Strange, strange, the enamel medallion she caresses on her sexless breast! Pray, let us draw near it. It is a relief of a barbarous and futuristic sort: the enormous and splendid eye of a peacock's tail reposing under a human eyelid, the whole encircled by bloodless cabochons. One May afternoon, in the Bois, a poor devil whom Ruth had noticed for some time always in her path leapt from behind the shrubbery, followed her carriage, and hurling this medallion at her feet, said in a perfectly natural voice:
"For you alone, and you must know that the day you put it aside, I shall leave this life."
When she came into a drawing room one evening later, a gentleman fainted dead away at the sight of her. After he recovered, the gentleman stammered that he had not fainted because of her, but because of the enamel medallion on her breast. He begged her to let him have it for his collection. Ruth told him why she was obliged to refuse, and described the poor madman as best she could. The collector searched for him, failed to find him, and promptly went into a decline. One day he came to Ruth's house, and surrendered to the vastness of nature the poor soul of one who loved only artificial things.
And so the secret is out! Ruth, this charming dying creature, through the incomprehensible workings of fate, spends her life spreading suicide on her way, along the stations of the cross.
Ruth had operated in Biarritz before adding her note of sadness to this little spa; and despite her horror of blood, had asked to see a bullfight at San Sebastian.
Ruth and her imperturbable brother were sitting in the governor's box above the bull's entrance. Ah, how excited she was in her loose gown of tea-colored muslin, without folds or flounces, hastily thrown together in the devil-may-care fashion of a shroud, in order not to affront, it seemed, by too exaggerated a cut or too resistant a finish, the indefensible and unmodish dissolution of the lady who was to wear it!
The bestial blood that flowed there, slowly drunk by the sand of the arena, supplanted that of her usual nightmare.
Quietly and with no feeling of nausea she had already exulted over the sight of six jades disemboweled, four bulls gashed and finally run through, and two thrown banderilleros, one gored in the thigh. She always held back the governor's arm when the entire ring signaled to him, with a thousand waving handkerchiefs, to wave his own and put an end to the massacre of the picadores' horses and call out the banderilleros.
"Oh, not yet, señor presidente, the next engagement will be the most beautiful..."
With the fifth bull, a volley of jeers broke over the weak señor presidenite. Two horses, in their death agony, lay in each other's embrace waiting to be dispatched. Two others were dragged away, their guts streaming to the ground. Finally, at a signal, the heavy picadores dressed in yellow had withdrawn, leaving the bull silent and ready to face the banderillero, who stood waiting with his two beribboned javelins. He was bleeding, the poor bull, from the many wounds he had received (superficial scratches intended to exasperate rather than weaken him). He bounded, then turned, and went back to sniff the limp masses of the two wounded horses and turn them over with his little horns. He sat down in front of them like a brotherly sentinel and laid his forehead against them as if he were trying to understand. In vain the banderillero called to him, teased him, and even hurled his black-tasseled cap at his feet. The bull just went on trying to understand, pawing the sand with his angry hoof, completely bewildered by this enclosed field of brilliant colors and clamoring people where all he could do was rip open blindfolded horses and rush at floating red rags.
A capador jumped over the wall and threw a collapsed goatskin bottle in his face. The spectators applauded.
And then suddenly before those twenty thousand fans fluttering patiently under a wide splendid sky, the beast stretched his neck unmistakably toward Ruth, as if she alone were the cause of all this cruelty. Far from his native pastures he began to utter cries so superhumanly distressing (cries of such genius, really) that there was one of those moments of general shock, as when new religions are founded. And fainting and delirious, the beautiful and inhuman lady of the presidential box--wouldn't you know?--was carried out.
And Ruth took up again her blood-curdling refrain:
"Blood, blood ... there, on the grass; all the perfumes of Arabia..."
And naturally with Ruth on the scene, the slaughter of bulls and horses had to come to a strange end that day! This señor presidente, who had never laid eyes on our young and symbolical heroine before, this peculiar creole gentleman with his malarial face and gold-rimmed spectacles, who had remained so impassive and composed before the jeering throng, killed himself that very evening. He bequeathed to Ruth some of the knick-knacks he had collected in the colonies during those consular exiles that had made his strange weary soul what it was. He left also an enigmatical but noble letter that fortunately Patrick succeeded in intercepting. Patrick had of course by this time given up trying to make any sense of this epidemic of bizarre scenes.
And who indeed could, unless it is the Lord in Heaven?