Chapter VII: Legends in the Deep
Within the Petit Louvre, all was quiet in contrast to the riotous pageant entering the Petite Tuilerie, making the Place du Dieu Nysien both crowded and noisy, the Grande Galerie full of little children dressed like the courtiers of François I who had moved his château to Blois near the Loire and the lilies of the valley. Through the fanlights, I watched the evening descend as I mounted the spiral staircase to my suite, flowers upon flowers in my arms. I met Ariadne on the landing. Her chartreuse-yellow eyes looked up at me, and she rubbed her sleek head against my leg and flank. The panther was gentle, affectionate one moment, but, turning her face to the hall stretching before us, she became agitated and brusque, her throat producing a low growl.
"What is it?" I asked of the big cat, treating her like a hunting dog.
In response, Ariadne took the material of my trousers into her mouth and tugged lightly on the linen. I assumed she wished I follow her, and so my footsteps walked in the direction she led. Her path stopped at my antechamber, whose door, curious to note, was ajar.
The panther waited to see what I would do next; then she lay her massy paw on the portal, her growl increasing in volume, her canines gleaming in the illumination from the sconce. I myself entered the antechamber where I placed the bouquet of daisies and red valerians atop the small table in front of a mirror. On the bench abutting the right-hand side of the room, I noticed a white cape with a silver fringe around the edge and fur collar. At first I thought the garment belonged to Corinne, but a faint smell of tobacco and coffee and something of bedellium clung to the fabric instead of the expected lemon verbena perfume.
Shrugging, I reached for the door to the suite proper, but Ariadne stood between me and the handle, preventing me from opening the door. She nudged the jam and moved away. I could then discern this door, too, was ajar. Due to the narrowness of the opening, I enjoyed a limited view of the room whose environs were cool and dim, but yet I could distinguish a splash of watery light at the headboard of the bed. Someone with a small frame lay under the covers, and the tall silhouette of a second figure bent over the one who was recumbent. A sigh, a few muttered words in the darkness. The silhouette disappeared. Then a heavy tread on the carpet, the clinking sound of glass; and the door opened wide.
"Monsieur d'Algentile!" Tirgovina said in a strained whisper.
The panther between us grumbled, and with an effort I resumed playing with my monocle.
"Duc, may I ask what you are doing in Madame's bedchamber?"
He smiled, holding out a bottle of rum and snifters to me. "Madame la Déesse des Tournesols? And I? I am melely stealing this nectar from her night stand. She was callingfol her maid who could not be found so I volunteeled my selvices once she and I had shaled a dlink. Celtainly you will pelmit me to plopose a toast to the comtesse flom time to time?"
"A toast, oui, perhaps." I ceased to toy with my monocle. "But let this serve as a warning to you. If you ever touch my wife, I shall kill you, Monsieur."
"Vely well. As you wish." He stepped into the antechamber, exchanging the vessels in his hands for the white cape on the bench. "I shall study my Malie de Flance, acquaint myself with the Rose, and vex you no further."
"I thank you for your consideration, duc."
Tirgovina bowed, sidling toward the door. "Not at all, and may I expect you at the masque tonight? I have not decided what I shall be, but I understand Laphael plans to appear as Chlistian VII of Denmalk."
"The masque? I think not." I positioned my hand on the door across the one communicating with the hall. "Though I suggest you dress like the Comte de Holcke."
"Ah, Holcke! A supelb idea, Monsieur. Bonsoir."
And with that, each man vanished behind the boiseries of the two doors of the anteroom. Ariadne had also made her departure, though I did not know where she went nor did I realize she was not with me until I stood in the silent bedchamber gazing at the slumbering form of Corinne, her brown hair spread out on the pillow, the part of her face turned to the lamp light looking flushed and pallid. The red vicuna cloak was still draped about her, but it was undone, leaving her neck and breast exposed to the air. I thought of tissue paper or a delicate Sèvres bowl when I saw the transparent skin of her shoulders whose softened lines merged with those of the sheet.
I tried to be as quiet as I could and approached the headboard to retie the laces of the cloak to cover her breast properly. However, the instant I touched her, she stirred, opening her eyes. "Raoul?"
"Non, non, chérie. I am sorry." I kissed her on the cheek. "I did not want to disturb you. Go back to sleep."
"I did not know you had returned." She struggled with the layers of fabric surrounding her and then sat up in bed, leaning against the cushions behind her. Meanwhile, the vicuna cloak fell away from her shoulders, revealing her naked torso. She was panting and shivering in the cold. Upon realizing her semi-nude state, suddenly overcome with modesty, she bowed her head and gathered the vicuna around her body. "And I did not know how loose this mantle was. Forgive me."
I shook my head. "How do you feel?"
She blinked, twirling the tassel on one end of the bolster about her first finger. "Why, I feel refreshed after sleeping so long. But I know I am unwell." She directed my palm to her cheek, which burned hotly. "You see I am feverish."
"Mon dieu! This heat does not discomfort you?"
"Not in the least. I took some wine, and the temperature in this room is agreeable."
Indeed I could smell alcohol on her breath. "Oui, wine. You drank some in the company of Monsieur le Duc."
Nonchalant, she nodded. "I requested something potable. The duc heard me and brought me some. He also carried a second glass, and I could simply not tell him to drink his draft elsewhere, despite his lisping talk. I remember ... very little, though I went to sleep, and now you have come to greet me."
"I do not know if it is a greeting or guilt which impels me."
As she had been this morning, Corinne waited for explanation with her inquiring eyes.
"I looked lonely, and two people commented on it. They recommended I go back from where I came if only to rid myself of that plaintive aspect I carry so well."
"You missed me very much then?"
I frowned. "I stand before you at this moment wanting to talk to you all night because I spoke not a word to you the entire day, and you ask me if I missed you?"
"Ah, I am well pleased." She held my hands. "But we must confine ourselves to talking, and not all night. As rested as I am, I have become weak. I cannot say why, though it may be the baby."
"I thought you were not sure."
"Indeed I am no more sure tonight than I was over breakfast, but you planted the idea in me, and I think ... I want to be enceinte."
"Want to be?" I pronounced each syllable slowly. "That has an easy remedy, chérie."
She pressed my hands, shaking her head. "A remedy too frequently administered the past few nights." Then she paused, and the corner of her mouth twitched. "Unless you wish it. Unless you must because you were away from me. Today is like that other day in that respect, and if you should want some scintillation ..."
"Say no more," I said, sighing, sitting beside her, encircling her waist with my arms. "I should desire nothing except to do something for you. Tell me, chérie, what may I offer you."
Corinne smiled and placed her head on my breast. "Carry me to the window seat. I would like to share some biscuits over port with you. Marie should have set the tray by the table. Do you see it?"
I glanced to my left where two steps went down to a ring of furniture, divans and fauteuils, around a table whose glass surface seemed to float above its wrought iron structure. A humble repast lay on a platter in the society of a vase of white flowers and a candle flickering inside a translucent vessel shaped something like a squat and rather bulbous perfume bottle, the kind which some women, like the Princesse de Parme, keep on their toilet counters for whatever reason. There was additionally a leather-bound book with gilded triangles on the corners.
"Very good. We shall first feast, and then you will read to me until I fall asleep."
The volume in question was the Panchatantra, which reminded me strongly of le Fontaine's fables as I narrated aloud the tales about owls and jackals and the turtle who was a friend to the gazelle in the wood. Corinne half sat, half reclined in my lap. Her hands, hidden under the vicuna cloak, were probably folded as they usually were when I read to her. Seated as she was, with patience eternal, attention rapt in a charming story, she became a little girl, a child, silent, fascinated, and dreamy. It delighted her to turn the page, scented by sandalwood, after I finished reading the graceful, italicized script of the text. The only sounds were my low, murmurous voice, the occasional quick, dry crinkling of aged paper, a sigh. The damask of the curtains tickled my face when I leaned too far back.
I do not know what hour it was. Corinne twisted about to be vis-à-vis with me, her arms embracing my neck, the tip of her nose near mine. I left off reading as I felt her breasts on my chest, a pleasant, light weight whose warmth infiltrated the linen of my shirt and reached my skin. The candle had died down to an indifferent ember, and the only source of illumination originated with the lamp somewhere in front of us.
"Are you tired?"
"Non, chérie," I whispered, tossing the book away.
"I want to go to sleep."
"I shall bring you to the bed."
"But you will be more comfortable there."
"I want to stay here."
Her clasp tightened around me. I could feel her cool breath below my ear. I remained there on the window seat holding Corinne in my arms, her breasts pushing up against my chest. Though my legs were numb, my morning dress still stiff with starch, my amorous longing condemned to a sort of chastity, which deplored the thought of seduction--however, easily accomplished--I did not have the courage to move since I would awaken her. She was already fatigued from all the other times I had made love to her, and when her hand, inspired by that unconscious locomotion capturing our limbs during heavy slumber, dropped to the inner part of my thigh, I, even then, refused to stir.
Thus I lingered throughout the dark, balmy night, ignoring my inconveniences, shunning my passion, never once dormant, admiring the moonlight drenching our relaxed figures in a silvery liquidity which the glass panes reflected back to my drowsy gaze. This was contentment; I was convinced of it. Here, my wife lay with her cheek pressed to my breast and I lost midst the folds of the drapes; and there, beyond our guess, a lonely satellite told the stars in the Milky Way about the man and woman in the window. It was enough. Thus I was then, and thus I was later aboard the Léthée, Corinne and I having resumed the same somnolent stance within our stateroom, sailing to Spetses, land of bon fires and the magus growing his ashy lilacs, as one of three crafts in a yacht race, originally Raphal's idea and seconded by the duchess.
Upon visiting the wheelhouse, the skipper informed me that our vessel was leagues ahead of both the Flaneur des Vagues and the Rêve à Clef. Assured of our "punctual" arrival, I was at my ease, seated on a bolster with the sea breeze blowing into the cabin from the open windows. Corinne, who seemed more slender, more fairy-like clothed in a white satin peignoir, slept in my hold, the undulations of the ocean around us imparting the sense of a lullaby into the air. This air she breathed, and, rocked back and forth by a calm Aegean, she smiled.
Soon, the hands on her breast unfolded, the eyes blinked in the daylight of mid afternoon, and the mouth opened in a yawn. Corinne surveyed the chamber, her glance resting longest on the fluttering diaphanous curtains, a shower of pear blossoms cascading down into an orchard of our own. Her head then pivoted to the opposite direction and faced me.
"Bonjour," I answered, laughing.
"You were here all this time?"
"Where else would I go?"
She shrugged. "I don't know, but why are we on your yacht?"
"I neglected to tell you I bought a Greek isle for your birthday?"
"We are traveling there presently."
"I wish you could take away this nausea. I would take an emetic but do not have the energy."
I flattened a palm on her stomach. She lay her hand atop my fingers, peering at me through her lashes. "Do you feel anything?"
"Oui," I lied.
She raised an eyebrow. "You are a dreamer. I have felt nothing yet, and here you are believing your son may have given one of those infantile kicks promising the best cavalry officer to ride out of Saint-Cyr."
"A son?" I was uncertain then. "I want a girl."
"And I want a boy."
"Why? A girl would be delightful. But we could always have a second, and he could be a boy."
She shook her head. "It does not matter right now. I think it is seasickness, not pregnancy."
"But you were never seasick in the past." I became strangely disappointed, at which point I inwardly chided myself.
"Not to this extent, non. Before, it was very mild, so I never mentioned it to you."
"Forgive me. I should have asked if—"
"Non, non. It is a fair day for sailing. The sun turns the water to aquamarines and forget-me-nots."
She climbed down from my lap and stood in front of me, her hands on the cushion of the window seat. I continued to sit. My monocle at my eye, I studied the aspect of the main, verifying Corinne's description.
"Regardless, we shall disembark shortly."
"Then I await the first sight of land."
It was an hour or so later when the second mate detected the Dapia, alerting the captain and me of our imminent entrance into the harbor. Corinne held a spyglass to her eye as she leaned on the figurehead. Standing by her side, afraid that she would become unwell anew, I stationed myself starboard and became profoundly absorbed in the foamy water displaced by the pleasure boat. Every now and then, I looked to the countess. I knew not if I were watching the movements of her green scarf or for something else altogether, but it occurred to me, while sensing the aroma of citron vanilla on my gloves, that the diamond cufflinks were the only company I could expect when I decided for reasons unknown to most of the world, and even perhaps to myself, to delve into one of my thoughtful, melancholic moods. There was something of restlessness and introspection and a quavering hope, a wary optimism like, and a suggestion of dread. I spoke of none of this to anyone and determined such sentiments would go to the grave with me, if they failed to become mist, clouding the azure glow hovering above the marina.
Beyond the intimate port, Spetses itself was a small island with two or three villages, a school with the appearance of a monastery, and acres of pine forests creeping up onto the slopes of charcoal-gray mountains. There were some almond groves and any number of retiring beaches whose fine, white sand, possessing the smoothness of gold dust, resembled a desert in miniature next to the savannas of the esplanades rife with a thick, springy grass that provided a bounce to the step. Farther inland were resinous evergreen woods where sylvan echoes, soft and haunting, resonated among the alders and rhododendrons. Once I glimpsed a little pond, a "mare," as those of the Morvan call it, of surpassing limpidity, a gleaming, pearly cerulean oval of a gem set in a mounting made from the mossy turf and the shapely leaves littering the forest floor. A shaft of sunlight broke through the canopy and played upon the surface of the water, lending everything the quality of having been constructed out of a gilded emerald.
I dipped an empty canteen into the pond and proffered the vessel, once filled with cold water, to Corinne seated atop a gentle young filly. The horse in truth belonged to the grand prince who had been assumed to arrive before the rest of the party in the two yachts since the speed of his craft was something of a legend among the residents of the isle. According to the popular tale, the mistress of the crown prince, rumored to be a deaf Cercassian once a slave to the sultan, was due at the bal blanc et noir in Athens to play the part of the white maiden, a feminine embodiment of the striving of two kings, but she, in the rush that accompanies an appearance on the stage, forgot to pack her jewels and would have emerged without her choker of sapphires or her bangles whose rose-gold charms clinked whenever she played upon a Stratavari. The grand prince, or le roi noir in the Moreska, saw all and decided as has been decided countless times in the Theater's past that the show must go on, yet the jewels would not be sacrificed; and so he leapt on the deck of his yacht, commanded the skipper to sail back to his private beach on Spetses, retrieved the Byzantine music box from the toilet counter in the guest quarters, and, on the brink of the curtain rising for the first dance, when the jet lights burned their lime-white fumes, burst into the mistress' dressing room, presenting her the sapphires the moment the conductor of the orchestra obtained general attention with a single, prolonged, tremulous note, the water in the Piraeus still bubbly from the speeding course of his vessel, the figurehead still moist from the ocean spray. The inhabitants, accustomed to seeing a debonair yachtsman with brim tilted at a jaunty angle, mistook me for Raphael, understandable given our close, physical resemblance, though they had been at a loss about Corinne since two riders would strain the filly. Thus the countess was mounted and I left to hold the reins walking a little ahead of the docile horse, a leisurely, idyllic pace. We were in a perfect eclogue, neither too fast nor too slow.
Corinne drank from the canteen as did the filly from the pond. I laved my face in the water. In a basket were cucumber sandwiches, butter cakes with sugar icing, and a flask of lemon tea. Using the stump of a felled tree for a table and my handkerchief for a tablecloth, Corinne and I feasted, the horse grazing on some coarse undergrowth. When we finished, our garments stained from the grass, we set to counting the hazy, concentric rings in the cross section of the trunk. "Un, deux, trois ..."
A finger advanced toward the circumference with every whispered numeral, our heads bent together over the creamy, brown wood. "Quarante-huit, quarante-neuf, et enfin cinquante, cinquante ans." The tree, whether mighty oak or unassuming fir, was older than us. We smiled at each other and decided to postpone our siesta, which suddenly looked appealing in the laziness of the afternoon, until we attained the Petite Versailles on the other side of the forest.
There, we changed our clothes and stretched out on a hammock, the beach sprawling before us, turquoise-blue water, an ultramarine sky, and dazzling sand dunes drifting across the land, making a day feel like a century, all serene, majestic, and fresh. The sea foam mingled with the sunlight, the air with the froth. A pungent, saline smell mixed with the fragrance of amber and violets which covered the lawn between the beach and the villa. I could hear the waves. I could hear Corinne breathe. They were two, primal sounds commanding my respect since they were the heartbeat of nature. The heat melted into a shimmering, quivering mistiness, caressing our skin with infinite tenderness, and, burying my face into the flowing hair of my wife, I thought I could taste the milk and honey that were so abundant when the world was still young, when the wild had not yet lost its grace nor sublimity.
I next opened my eyes maybe days, maybe months later. I could not testify to either length of time. But during the interval my hat had drooped over my eyes and obscured most of my visage. After lifting the brim, I found the grand prince, dressed in a suit, carrying a cane, bending over Corinne and me. He smirked upon seeing us luxuriating on the hammock as if there were nothing more important than counting the conches washed to shore following high tide.
He doffed his panama, dipping into a bow. "Well, Monsieur le Comte, you have won the race and now enjoy the spoils of victory, namely appropriating my horse, reclining at your ease in my favorite spot on the entire island, and marveling at a fine view--to be brief, impersonating me so expertly that I could not have done it better."
"I must admit, Raphael, that I am rather good at pretending to be you."
"I think," Corinne said, "the question now is whether you can be Raoul."
"Madame, I would never dream of becoming Monsieur le Comte. He will always be known to you." The panama returned to his blonde sconce. "I would do an injury to you my guests if I attempted such a thing."
"May you have too much honor?"
"Honor? Non, Madame. You have perhaps neglected your Josephus and the episode at the fortress of Masada. Honor is not enough, even if it is fatal."
The countess was silent. I arose, careful not to unbalance the hammock with the new distribution of weight on the criss-crossing ropes. "The Jewish Wars. It has been a long time since I read about them."
"And it is not a long time at all until we dine."
"Is that so?" Corinne asked, consulting the aspect of the heavens.
"Come, we shall wait for you as you change into evening dress. I am desirous you sample an American cocktail. My mixology manual tells me the ingredients should all be European, but the invention to bring them together in such an amiable ratio is uniquely from across the Atlantic."
"American you say?"
"You remember ... Lafayette and Washington?"
I shrugged my shoulders, recalling that America was the place where some French aristocrats exiled themselves during the revolution, great dukes and barons reduced to smelting metal in Baltimore or printing in Philadelphia, elegant hostesses of the western faubourgs reduced to farmer's wives, with a trace of a Parisien accent to keep the memory of the old country vibrant whenever they offered a bon mot, more often misunderstood than appreciated for its wit.
"To your toilette and then to table. Away with you, but return quickly. I imagine you will be fond of our foreign drink sooner than you will think."
The cocktail was called a martini: equal parts Old Tom Gin and sweet vermouth, a dash of absinthe, another of orange bitters, and garnished with a twisted lemon peel. I actually did not care what they named it because no designation short of the elixir of immortality would have sufficed. In a single wineglass, I held both the essence of solitude and genius. The countess, too, idealized the drink and its flavorful suggestion of the tropics of hot seas and hotter shadows cast on the sand by palm trees swaying in the breeze. In truth, we were sipping our cocktails in the avenue of palms leading up to the villa, a square house of sorts with a peristyle and a terrace accessed from glass doors; elsewhere, a gravel pathway, colonnade of red tiles, and a gleaming, tesselated, white marble floor reminiscent of the mosaics unearthed at Pompeii. Beyond was the ocean and the pump house partially hidden behind a grove of lime trees.
Trays laden with salted pistachios and little cakes stuffed with crushed hazel nuts and cardamom floated among us. We conversed about the ages, about gold, about the migration of swans from Delos to Delphi and back again. Other nights, as desultory as the first, the topic was the court at Tirgovina where all the local voyvodes paid suit to the duchess in her menagerie, where a yellow-green parakeet, gift from a naval officer, danced with leopards and tigers and even a great panda who spent the hours devouring quantities upon quantities of bamboo, scourge of the palace gardener to cultivate; meanwhile the young duke, shy yet imperious, paced in his library, dwelling on how to word the next sentence in his memoirs, which he commenced when he was a boy of fifteen years. As a result, page after page of florid writing and a rather misanthropic read culminated in an attempt to end his days by some form of ritual impalement--well known to be the preferred method of execution of Vlad Tepes, an ancestor--with torches, incense, and white bread dipped in a blood sauce as the gold-tipped spear, glistening redly in the firelight, pointed heavenward, a ghastly tableau if any there were one.
Over sherry and dark chocolate spiced with cinnamon and cloves, we alternated reading aloud the Erotokritos while the rest of the modest party listened to the medieval epic seated around the veranda or the salon de la plage, called as such for the tall windows commanding a view of the starlit ocean and the sky where the moon rose from her fleasy, pink-tinted clouds, turning the sand into a field of ancient diamonds, gems which had the aspect of having been set in the crowns of kings but then reduced to the bobbles of the sea. A breeze blew from somewhere passed the billows and made the sheer drapes ripple in gentle wavelets above the carpet whose color was identical to the wine in our glasses. The duchess and Corinne, in fragile white dresses that fluttered like the curtains, reclined on a couch, their chins nestled in their palms, their other free hands clutching their drinks. Raphael, as master of the house, was ensconced in a fauteuil by the hearth, the beige color of his cuffs contrasting brilliantly with the burgundy velvet of the armchair. Tirgovina made himself comfortable in the adjacent burgère. I was situated on the fringes of this rosy sanctuary in the privileged spot at the window seat, book in hand, a voice rendered low and thrilling by the story of love, friendship, and affection for fatherland, though I had to exhort myself not to pause at the end of the page because the countess was not in my arms, eager to turn to the next leaf. Yet every so often, during the passages in which the hero, whose name provided the title for the poem, stationed himself in cloak and dagger below the balcony of the Princess Aretousa to serenade her with songs describing the depth of his passion, I could not help but glance toward Corinne and offer her a furtive, melting look because her lying against the Grecian night, with the sea playing its arcane symphony, was one of the most memorable tableaux I had had of her at that point. She was so alluring then, a sphinx who was still a kitten.
Indeed the memory of my wife lying in the salon de la plage remains salient. I will cherish it, though I failed to do so in the past, confident, with the invincibility of a bridegroom on his honeymoon, that everything would stay as it always had. But alas, it is lamentable: we assume too much. I am no less guilty of the fault.
Of course I was not the only one who remarked her. The grand prince, with the gaze of an aesthete appreciated the juxtaposition of the woman in the window and the surrounding, velvety blackness. Tirgovina, too, grew inattentive to the bouquet of our excellent digestif, forsook the red wine in his glass, and became contemplative at the sight of the countess playing with her green scarf, no doubt attracted by the skin of her bare arm and the cloud of powder that issued forth from her breast whenever she laughed. Then I knew she had seen my looking at her, and more importantly, that if the wind should blow away her scarf from her again, she would wish I alone among the three men in that rosy chamber to run along the beach to retrieve it-. Even if she threw her scarf to the ocean in some petulant, frivolous display, she could be assured that I would still relinquish all to pursue it.
Corinne bestowed a smile to the men about her but reserved her lips for me. Equipped with such knowledge, I was capable of reading the Erotokritos to the assembled company until the early hours of the morning. The owls ceased hooting then, but the geckos were still clinging to the walls, their bodies arranging themselves into some druidic design under the Caravaggio lighting created by a lamp with a dark shade, the silver-gilt pendulum clock tick-tocking as I arrived at the end of a verse. Some basil leaves floated in a bowl of water tinted lavender; and on the surface shivered the flames of a candelabrum whose tapers the grand prince snuffed when he saw the growing lateness of the hour signaled by one of the ladies positioning a hand before her mouth to conceal a yawn. I or the duc, or whoever was at the nocturnal recitation, shut the volume with a gentle motion. The sea sighed, and one-by-one our party retired to each's quarters.
Within the boudoir, we enacted a strange sort of aubade. Corinne, who rose earlier and earlier, leaned on the railing of our balcony to listen to the mysterious lyre player softly sing the love verses from the Erotokritos, her elbows bent on the parapet with her head in her hands, the fabric of her robe billowing out behind her, a golden aura surrounding her at first light. I, too, heard the music, but I was still between the sheets, pressing my cheek to the pillow where Corinne had just lain, hoping to catch the scent of verbena. "Come back to bed," I muttered.
"Oui, in a while. This is where the princess begins to suspect who it is." And the song started on an accelerando, forceful, abrupt.
Then I shall persuade myself that you no longer love me."
"What? That is nonsense ..."
"Come back here, and I shall believe you."
"But we spent the entire night together."
I sighed. "So we shall not see each other during the day?"
"I did not mean to imply ..."
"Imply what, hmmm?" I whispered, creeping up in back of her, capturing her wrists in my fingers, my chin poised on her shoulder. "Do you prefer this invisible lyre player to me?"
And of course the unseen musician ceased his recital when I asked my question.
"I ... I?"
I commenced to blow in her ear, making her giggle.
"Non! Stop!" She squirmed in my arms, and I relaxed my hold on her wrists, allowing her to grip the railing to support her during her spell of mirth, continued by my tickling her. "Stop! I am all yours now. What would you?" She caught her breath as she turned to face me.
"Nothing. I only wanted to embrace you and wish you good morning."
She offered me a wan smile. "Your desires are so simple."
"That is because happiness is simple."
"I must not be very happy then."
I stiffened. "Why do you say that?"
"I suppose I do not want simple things," she said, shrugging."
Simple things ... But then what do you wish? May I give them to you?"
"Non," she responded, shaking her head. "I do not believe you can."
I stepped nearer her, my arms extended. "Tell me, s'il vous plaît."
She looked ready to cry, but I dare not tilt her face upwards so I could confirm the glistening, tremulous aspect of tearful eyes. Instead I waited. She was quiet. I grew anxious.
She shook her head. As I reached for her hand, she slid past me, my finger tips brushing the sleeve of her robe.
"Non! Don't follow me!" And with that, she precipitated herself into our bedroom, slamming the glass door behind her and locking me out of the chamber.
"Corinne! You must return! Open this door!" Standing alone on the balcony, I shook the curved handles, causing the door frame to tremble. "What is the meaning of this? I want you here immediately." Again, I wrestled with the stubborn handles, as if convincing myself that the doors would refuse truly to budge, that this time, it had been my wife herself who had barred me from her presence, that I could prevail over a little bit of glass and metal if I could not vanquish the mystique of the lyre music, which I feared, despite feeling, when we lay together in an embrace, our hearts beating in unison, would soon become a more tantalizing invitation.
"Jéssamin." My valet, phlegmatic as ever, had opened the glass doors and, tilting his head to the side, inspected my disheveled, rumpled person at the moment attired in a dressing gown and pajamas.
I entered the room, brushing a speck of dirt off my sleave. "Where is Corinne?"
"Monsieur is unaware of Madame's location?"
"Indeed, my question indicates that."
"And so soon ... during your honeymoon."
This remark, which I deemed impertinent in the extreme, gave me pause. "And what is that supposed to signify?" I placed my forearms on the back of a fauteuil and folded my hands atop it.
"Nothing. I just assumed that a new bridegroom, such as Monsieur, would know everything about his wife. The communion of souls necessitates knowledge of that nature, you understand?"
"Jéssamin," I returned, stirring cardamom into my chocolate, "speak to me neither about the communion of souls nor special knowledge. I am well cognizant of the fact that I am not the carefree philosopher I used to be. Matrimony sports with my flippancy, and matrimony triumphs. But I implore you, if you may know where Madame is, have the kindness to tell me."
"I believe she is in the toilette."
I glanced in the direction past the alcove housing our bed, prepared to walk there.
"If I may, mon comte?"
"Oui? I listen."
"I hope this may not be special knowledge. But you should know that Madame spoke not a word when I passed her. You must be very gentle."
"'Gentle"' That word ... You, too, say gentle."
My valet shrugged. "Oui, I do. I would you be gentle now and gentle later."
"Why? Why do you tell me this?"
"For her sake, Monsieur; for hers and no other."
Having delivered his cryptic admonition, Jéssamin quit the room, leaving me to muse on the sinister chill of the sunlight falling on my face. I strode to the toilette, stared at its door at some length. It was locked of course. Corinne was within, though she was superbly quiet. I raised my hand, lowered it to the wood panels, and hesitated, wondering why I had become so reluctant to knock when I was so curious formerly. Then the sound of gushing water met my ears, and soon, in the exquisite silence that followed, I gave my attention to the drip, drip, drop, plop ... drip , drop, plop.
My hand was still elevated at the level of my eyes. I swallowed, not having the courage to take the next breath.
Drip, drop, drop, plop.
"Oh, Corinne," I whispered. "This is when we say nothing."
Drop, plop, plop. And so I leaned with my back to the door, my head lowered, my hands massaging my temples, my impatience dissipating into some uncomfortable sensation in my throat.
Little did I know that I would return to this door, impenetrable and locked. It would be in the evening, sooner than I would imagine. We would all be seated in the manorial dining room with our crystal glasses on the whitest linen table cloth and a center arrangement of palm fronds and rose petals. Every other burner in the chandelier above us would be lit so the china would glint in a languid, winking fashion, so our hair would look sleek and smooth, so the carved wood, brown and russet-gold of the arms on the chairs would seem to move in the shadows.
The punch in the bowl smelled sweetly of citrus and berries. Olives, a cold and savory pineapple soup were served first; Corinne and the Princesse Aline bent their heads together, laughing over some sally offered by the Prince Apollonaire whose wife, the Princesse Artemisia, sat sedately to my right, observing the company with a roving eye and a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Periclès, the Marquis de Zouvre, made a toast to the beauty of the duchess with villainous blue eyes at the commencement of the sword fish cooked in red wine, truffled woodcock, squid fried in garlic, and green pepper salad. I shrugged my shoulders at something Alcibiade, a count from Monaco, said, watching the sommelier pour champagne into my glass.
"I swear, mon Dieu, Venice has the most uneven pavement."
"You don't say! Why, I was there this summer."
"And met a beautiful boy at our hôtel. He was Hungarian."
"No, I think he was Polish. He was dressed as a sailor. You know how every Polish boy wants to grow up to be a naval officer some day."
"Ah, those are the Poles for you, always longing for the impossible."
"So it is well that Russia has them. At least Petersburg knows what the rest of Europe does."
The Marquise de Zouvre shook her head. "In any case, I was taking my constitution in the square in front of Saint Marc, tripped, and completely forgot about what I was thinking. Just like that, it was gone. And to this day I cannot begin to remember what it was."
Quince jam, muscadine grapes and Chouglof replaced the bread and herbal cheese. It was half passed one in the morning. We were finishing our sixth bottle of champagne, the ice in the bucket having melted long since. The witticisms became more risque, the toasts more ridiculous:
"To the royalists who are forever on the true side of any revolution!"
"To the exiles at home!"
I heard a cough.
"To the color green!"
"To the heart of a gentleman!"
"To the ladies with camellias!"
"And to amber on the beach!" Everyone else in the world connected their glasses with mine, save Corinne. I did not take the customary sip, instead searching the gay and sparkling throng for the countess, my good humor, at its pinnacle, leaving me little by little, an uneasy hollowness pervading my breast. I lowered my arm. My eyes must have been betraying me, or perhaps it was the chandelier. Once, at the opera, we both distrusted the chandelier.
"Where is Corinne?"
"Qui c'est, Monsieur?"
"Corinne, la Comtesse d'Argentile!"
"Moi, je ne sais pas." A shrug, a giggle.
"Non, non, my wife!"
"Her and Draco both. What do you think of that, Monsieur?"
And sure enough, Tirgovina was not at table, his seat empty, his napkin thrown atop his dessert plate. Someone proffered me snuff from a white enamel box. The clock struck two. An amphora began to wobble in the far corner, tottered, and crashed to the ground.
"Non, merci," I said, rising from my chair.
"But wait. You will take a cigar in the smoking room, n'est-ce pas?"
"Excusez-moi. I must go. Very sorry."
The Duchesse de Tirgovina neared me. My hand reached for the portiere, my other hand kissed by she of the blue eyes that reminded me of those terrible, incredible legends trapped in the glaciers circling the arctic north.
"Some Turkish coffee then? It is dark and bitter, quite agreeable with poppy seed cake."
"I beg of you, Mademoiselle, let me be. Communicate my deepest regrets to Raphael, s'il vous plaît"
I twisted out of her grasp and hurried away into the corridor leading to the central hall, my mouth dry, my eyes alert, my ears straining to hear the rustle of a dress. Only my footsteps echoed on the tiles. The salle de la plage stretched out to my left. As I played a tatoo on the banister, deciding where I would next go, I found myself gazing out the baguette window whose marble mullion divided the pane into two halves revealing the restless sea below stars curious to know what I would do, when it appeared I could content myself looking at the ocean for the rest of time, I was so still and transfixed with the scene.
Then Tirgovina descended the grand staircase humming a cheery tune under his breath. "Ah, Laoul, speak of the devil. Fancy you here! But no matter. I must tell someone, and you ... But she is delicious."
In spite of myself, I picked up the satin-bound volume of the Erotokritos.
"Ouais, ouais. Such a plivilege to have a glance. It was only for a second, a moment you understand. But of coulse you know. Who am I besides you, you who go to sleep with ambrosia on your lips? The taste, I imagine, is all sweet and spicy and feminine, a lady--oh, how would we say it?--a lady without her camellias, or, just between you and me, without her velbena."
Perplexed, I did not say anything.
"Scrumptious, luscious, voluptuous, super sensuous and sumptuous. Oh, I have not all the wolds!" he cried, flailing his arms in the air. "How does one desclibe the flavor of a dleam? It is like saying the plesent king of Flance is a Leo when there is no king of Flance! How false it all is. But leally, Monsieur. You know not what you possess, and I fear I have been talking too long. Do not allow me to plevent you. I ... I go to my desselt. Bonne nuit, bonne nuit! Lemember me to the sunset and the sunlise, if you wish! Au levoir, au levoir, et adieu!"
Unable to comprehend the rambling monologue of the duke, I followed his progress to the dining room and pressed the Erotokritos farther into my side, feeling the corner digging into my flesh, the subsequent pain diverting my attention from whatever was the message beneath such flamboyant language. With a sigh and a final glance to the form retreating behind the portiere, I mounted the staircase. My ascent to the third floor was swift. I knew not why I directed my footsteps to our bedroom. I had no idea where Corinne could have gone, but something gave me the impression that she would repair to the toilette as she had in the morning when she fled from my arms, shunning my caresses and spurning my affection. Either she was there, or she had quit the island and condemned me to wallow in the senseless chatter of the Greek nobility at their sherry--I, without humor, without that dionysiac tincture flushing my cheek which burns the complexion with a feverish light, left to mull over the day's myriad enigmas.
And so, having attained the boudoir where I tossed the Erotokritos atop the bed, I returned to the toilette door, locked, impenetrable, my hand prepared to knock against the wood panels, and yet it manifested the same former reluctance from that morning. The quietude must have encouraged the state of limbo. I could envision Corinne's pensive eyes gazing into the mirror and meditating on a question which I could not even begin to guess. Angling my wrist backward, I was on the verge of connecting my knuckles with the door ...
Pale and wan, the countess presented herself then, closing the door behind her.
"You made a rather hasty exit, Madame."
Her hands, hidden under the red vicuna cloak, fidgeted with something.
"Hasty? In the middle of all that fine carousing, I could not sustain it, so I left. I did not expect anyone would notice."
"But I noticed."
"Then you must have noticed there were many bottles of champagne. It was too much for me."
"You finished only half a glass."
She sighed. "Do not forget the fumes and heat. The dining room was very warm."
"Then why not go outside to the terrace where it is cooler?"
She swallowed, slumping, her hand tightening on the door knob. "I ... I did not wish to be followed."
"And is not this vicuna you currently wear rather warm?" I grasped a fistful of the woolen fabric. "But no matter. I am more intrigued about your not wanting anyone to follow you. Why?"
She did not answer.
"From whom are you hiding, Madame?"
She shook her head. "No one."
"What are you hiding?"
"Look at me." Holding her chin in my hand, I tilted her head upwards. "I want your eyes on me, not to the sides, not over my shoulder--at me. Now, Madame ma Comtesse, you will kindly step away and permit me to enter the toilette."
"Non? So it is in there what you hide?"
"Of course not. I hide nothing."
"Then allow me to enter."
"Madame, understand that I shall know what it is you keep in the toilette."
"I invite you to try. I refuse to move."
"Precisely. You must not walk through that door."
"And why ever not?. You quit table just to stand guard here?"
"I quit table because of the wine, the heat, the stuffiness ... I needed air."
"Which I suppose you found in our toilette?"
She raised her hands in front of her with a rapid motion, a gesture of surrender. (It does not matter where I found it. How to make you comprehend! It was some small feminine discomfort that assailed me, so I left. I wanted privacy, so I came here, little suspecting you would come yourself. I would have repaired somewhere else then."
"If my wife suffers from 'some small feminine discomfort,' it is my business to know as such, Madame, and to be solicitous about her condition."
"Well, you have demonstrated your solicitude and know all. I believe there is nothing further to be said on the topic."
"Of course. We have talked enough. I only wish now is to open the door behind you."
"Non, non, Madame. Your eyes, they wander. Look at me." I lowered my face to hers. "I have been very patient and very courteous with you, but you are acting like a child.
"I? A child? You are unkind, Monsieur! I cannot deserve such words from you."
"On the contrary, I have been all too kind."
"You have not been kind to the thought of my having some things, certain things, for myself alone."
"It appears our notions of belonging conflict."
"But some things are simply mine, just mine." She was shaking her head, her eyes downcast.
"Oh oui, like an illicit liaison of yours because I would have no interest in it whatsoever."
She gasped, face upturned, eyes wide. "Liaison? Nonsense, Monsieur. You misunderstand me."
"I met Monsieur de Tirgovina at the bottom of the staircase. Convince me otherwise. Give me entry into the toilette."
"I shall do all I can to prevent that!" And with such an assertion, she placed her hands on my breast and pushed me away from her. I staggered back. My arms flailed on either side of me. I endeavored to regain my balance, tried to flatten my palm against a wall. But as soon as my fingers brushed the surface, the countess approached and pushed me back a second time. She took another step forward with her hands prepared for a third shove. I, no longer reeling, exhaled audibly, braced myself, and, when my wife was close enough, lifted her up into my arms.
"Raoul!" She was wriggling to liberate herself from me. "Raoul, put me down!" Then she commenced to punch my shoulder.
"Shall I drop you to the floor?"
Panting, she replied, "You ... You wouldn't dare!"
"You must not appreciate how angry I am. I am capable of anything, Madame. Do not provoke me further."
Her breathing grew labored while she redoubled her efforts to inflict violence to my person, beating my chest, kicking with her legs. I tightened my grip around her before, in one strong, fluid motion, throwing her over my shoulder, knocking all the air out of her quivering frame, and leaving her, spluttering and struggling against me, winded. Soon, however, she began pummelling my back with her fists, but my arm confined her limbs so she could not drive her knees into my torso. All the while, she was shrieking with every shrill note of her voice, punishing my ears with a voluble stream of abuse and frustrated cries of defeat.
"Damn it, Raoul! What the Hell do you want? Put me down! You cannot use me like this. It isn't decent nor fair! Put me down! Put me down, you beast!"
Taciturn, I trudged to the four-poster, resisting the urge to turn around and stalk to the toilette at that moment, with the combative countess easily available to furnish needed explanations. I mounted the couple of steps of the platform on which the bed rested and, with as much celerity as I could command, dumped my belligerent burden atop the Erotokritos on the mattress. Tossed between a cushion and the bolster, she looked about her, endeavored to position herself in a sitting posture, and said, "The bed! You bring me to the bed! How very like you."
"You go too far, Madame. If you imagine that I am thinking of sex, you both deceive yourself and insult me. I can always come to you." She scoffed. "But discovering what is in the bath I can do only now."
With my back to her, I advanced to the toilette.
"Non, Raoul! Wait! Come back!"
The countess arose from the bed, tripped on the vicuna cloak while stepping off the first step, and crashed to the ground, her fingers snatching the material of my trousers. She suppressed a groan by coughing as she yanked and tugged on my leg with all her strength.
"Madame, you will let me go," I announced, watching her frame writhe on the floor, her face bowed down to be vis-à-vis with my shoes.
"Non, not yet! You must wait, s'il vous plaît."
I bent down, wrestled with her, and finally pried her fingers off my lower leg, forcing her arms away from my person. At that point, she half sprang, half crawled forward, a hand extended in entreaty, supplicating me to heed her. I, with nerves frayed, patience exhausted, curiosity at its apex, ignored my wife and her prettily-worded, imploring expressions.
"Oh come back ... Come back. You would come back if you love me. You would wait a little longer if the stars told you to. S'il vous plaît ..."
My hand was on the door knob.
"You mustn't ... You mustn't. Will nothing move you?"
I opened the door and secreted myself within the chamber. Behind me the locked clicked. At the same instant, Corinne ceased her desperate words. It was so still I could hear my heart beating in my ears, could feel the hush weigh upon my breast, wrapping itself around my neck and suffocating me in its smoky tendrils until I succumbed to a serenity of such perfection that it was oppressive.
The toilette was dim. The light had been douched. Locating the wall nearest me, I lit the lamp and blinked in the subsequent brightness. I then surveyed the array of glassware and personal grooming items spread out on the counter. Everything was in its place: my razor, scuttle, shaving water, eau de cologne, salve, pomade; Corinne's jars of cream, bottles of perfume, a small casket of cosmetics, ribbons, tortoise shell combs, bath salts, ovoidal dish housing her rings. In the middle was soap, talcum powder, and a pile of towels folded into squares, one of which covered the wash basin. The only thing amiss was a sugar bowl and spoon.
Disappointed at the mundane appearance of the toilette counter and perplexed by the countess' earlier vehemence, I shrugged, idly removing the towel off the basin. But the towel was in reality a fine linen napkin, the kind which had been shaped into the form of a lily and stuffed into our wine glasses during dinner. Two red splotches at the upper left corner stained its whiteness. It was then that I saw that the basin was full of vervain water and that striations of orange-red blood streaked the greenish water.
"Mon dieu!" I whispered, the hand holding the linen napkin trembling.
In the shadow of the wash basin was essence of mint and a vial of ... The print was minuscule. I squinted in the lamp light, and the first word I discerned was laudanum.
"Made from the pure extract of Eleusinian poppies. Tincture of opium."
I could taste dust in my mouth.
I felt two hot drops moisten the back of my hand, and my reflection in the mirror ahead of me was ashen, the dull gray eyes blinking away more tears whose saline flavor my lips remembered from but a few days ago, when it rained in Athens.
A/N: I told you I would return. It was only after the autumn semester finished … Anyways, I give you a nice, long chapter which I wrote while listening to the Lamentation of Jeremiah, when the Jews are exiled to Babylon. I recommend it highly. It is haunting and sad in just that way to capture how Raoul feels. And while it is true I am on winter break now, I do not dare promise an update. There are scholarships and internships, and all those applications are not going to fill themselves out. My sincerest apologies for the delayed update and the uncertain future. I do my best, but I put school first. And for those of you who have been faithfully with me since chapter one, thank you so much! I appreciate your reading thus far. And should you have a moment, do please write me something about the story: Raoul, Corinne, how tragic things are becoming, whatever. I welcome all thoughts. I hope you enjoyed the latest installment and, if I do not deign grace the online world with my presence, have a wonderful holiday season and New Year!