I was exiting a theater where, every evening, I would put in an appearance in the loges among the large entourage of admirers. Sometimes it was completely full; sometimes completely empty. I did not care much to detain my glance on the orchestra seats filled only with thirty-odd forced enthusiasts, on the loges garnished in bonnets or on the antiquated dress – or, for that matter, to be part of an animated and trembling hall crowned on every floor with flowery outfits, sparkling jewels, and radiant countenances. Indifferent as I was to the performance in the hall, the performance in the theater hardly detained me – until the second or third scene of a sullen masterpiece popular at the time, when a well-known apparition illuminated the empty space, bestowing life in a breath and a word upon these vain figures in my immediate vicinity.
I felt alive in her, and she alone lived for me. Her smile filled me with infinite bliss; the vibration of her voice, so soft and yet so strongly resonant, made me twitch in joy and love. For me she had every perfection, responded to every interest and every whim. She was beautiful like the day amidst the footlights that shone upon her from below, pale as the night when, the footlights dimmed, the chandelier rays let her shine from on high. This last position showed her to be even more natural and brilliant in the shadow of her beauty thus isolated, like the divine Hours cast, with a star upon the forehead, on the brown depths of the frescoes of Herculaneum!
For a year now I had not dreamed of learning what else she could be; I was afraid to disturb that magic mirror that sent me her image, and, what is more, I had lent an ear to certain notions regarding not the actress, but the woman; what little I learned could have just as well applied to the Princesse d'Élide or the Princess of Trébizonde. One of my uncles, who had lived in the last years of the 18th century, as one needed to have lived in that era to know it well, had warned me early on that actresses were not women, and that nature had forgotten to make them a heart. Doubtless, he was talking about the actresses of that time; but he had told me so many stories of his illusions, his disappointments, and showed me so many portraits on ivory, charming medallions that he would use later to adorn snuff boxes, so many yellowed tickets, so many withered ribbons, all in establishing the definitive tale, that I had habituated myself to think badly of all these actresses without comprehending the nature of the times.
At that time we lived in a strange era, like those periods which ordinarily succeed revolutions or the overthrows of great reigns. No longer did one find the heroic gallantry of the Fronde, the elegant and adorned vice of the Régence, the scepticism and mad orgies of the Directory; instead, there obtained a medley of activity, hesitation and sloth, of brilliant utopias, philosophical or religious aspirations, vague enthusiasms, all imbued with certain instincts of rebirth; of worries from past disagreements, of uncertain hopes – something akin to the epoch of Peregrinus and Apuleius. Worldly man aspired to the bouquet of roses which were supposed to regenerate him through the hands of beautiful Isis; the eternally young and pure goddess would appear to us at night and shame us for the hours lost during the day. Ambition nevertheless was not something of our age, and the avid carving up of the positions and honors distanced us from the possible spheres of activity. The only refuge we had was the poets' ivory tower, where we would climb ever higher to isolate ourselves from the throngs. At these elevated peaks to which our masters guided us, we would finally breath the pure air of solitude, we would drink in oblivion from the golden cup of legends, we would be drunk on poetry and love. Love, alas, of vague forms, of pink and blue hues, of metaphysical ghosts! Seen from close, the real woman appalled our ingenuity; she had to appear as a queen or a goddess, and most of all, she could not be approached. Several among us understood, however, little of these Platonic paradoxes, and through our renewed dreams of Alexandria at times agitated the torch of subterranean gods, which lights the shadow for an instant with its sparkling trails.
It is in this way, therefore, that I, exiting the theater with the bitter sadness of a vanished dream, gladly made my way to the company of a large circle of acquaintances who dined together. And all melancholy yielded in the face of the inexhaustible eloquence of a handful of dazzling, stormy, lively, and sometimes sublime minds, those one always finds in periods of renewal or decadence, and whose discussions escalated to such a degree that the more fearful among us would go to the windows to see whether the Huns, the Ottomans, or the Cossacks had not come at last to cut short these arguments of rhetoricians and sophists.
"Let us drink, let us love, this is wisdom!" Such was the sole opinion of the circle's very youngest members. One of them told me: "For some time now I have seen you again and again in the same theater, each time I go, in fact. Which actress do you come to see?"
Which actress? ... It did not seem as if one could go there for any other. Nevertheless, I gave a name.
"Well, then!" said my friend with indulgence. "Do you see that happy man over there who just accompanied her out, and who, faithful to the rules of our circle, will not meet her again until perhaps after the night is done?"
Without too much emotion, I turned my eyes towards the person in question. They rested upon a young man properly dressed, a pale and nervous figure with acceptable manners and eyes stamped with melancholy and gentleness. He threw down gold pieces on a table of whist and lost them with indifference.
"What difference does it make to me," I said, "if it is he or someone else? There had to be someone, and he seems worthy of having been chosen."
"What about you?"
"Me? She's an image I pursue, nothing more."
As I left, I passed the reading room and mechanically took a look at a newspaper. This was, I believe, to see how the stock market was doing. In the debris of my opulence I had a sufficiently large amount invested in foreign equities. Rumor had said that these equities, long since neglected, would regain in value – which was exactly what had taken place following a change of ministers. The funds were already quoted as very high; and I became rich again.
A single thought resulted from this change in situation, that of the woman I had loved for so long, for she was now mine for the taking if I so wished. I was close to touching my ideal. Was it not still an illusion, a mocking typographical error? But the other newspapers said much of the same. The newly gained sum rose before me like a gold statue of Moloch. "What would he say now," I thought to myself. "That young man who was just with her, if he abandoned her and I were to take his place at her side?" I trembled at this thought, and my pride was shaken.
No! Not this way! It is not at my age that one murders love with gold. I will not become a corrupter. Besides, this is an idea from another era. Now who told me that this woman was venal? My eyes wafted vaguely across the newspaper I was still holding and I read these two lines: "Provincial Festival of the Flowers: tomorrow the archers of Senlis are to hand over the bouquet to their counterparts from Loisy." These words, remarkably simple, awakened in me a new series of impressions: a long-forgotten memory from the countryside, a distant echo of the innocent festivals of my youth. The trumpet and drum resonated from the distance in the hamlets and in the woods; young girls wove garlands and, as they sang, matched ornate bouquets with ribbons. A heavy wagon pulled by oxen received presents on its path, and we, children of these lands, formed a procession with our bows and arrows, decorating ourselves with the title of knights, all the while not knowing that we were doing nothing but repeating, from one age to the next, a druidic celebration which had survived monarchies and new religions.