Authors: Jean de Berg
BY JEAN DE BERG
Other material: Pauline RÃ©age; Jeanne de Berg
PUBLISHED BY ELEKTRON EBOOKS
COPYRIGHT 2011 ELEKTRON EBOOKS
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When I saw Claire again for the first time that summer it was at a party given by the X...'s, on boulevard Montparnasse. What struck me most about seeing her again was that she hadn't changed at all.
I felt as if I had just left her the night before, although in reality I hadn't seen her for at least two or three years, maybe more.
She held out her hand, not seeming in the least surprised to see me, and said, simply, “Hello,” exactly as if we had just said good night to each other the previous evening. I said “Hello, Claire,” in what I trusted was the same tone of voice, more or less.
Then I said hello to other people, and shook other hands, mostly those of people vaguely connected with the literary or the art world whom I run into almost every week in one place or another. There were certain things I had to discuss with some of them, and plans to make, so that by the time I had finished quite a little time had passed.
There must have been close to thirty people there, spread out among the three rooms that look out onto the boulevard. It must have been June, or the end of May, because I remember one of the French doors was open.
When I caught sight of Claire again she was alone on the balcony outside the open doors, leaning against the railing. She was looking into the room, but not in my direction. I turned to see what she was staring at: it was a group of three people, standing not far from the doors, which consisted of two young men under thirty, whom I didn't recognize, and a very young woman, or girl, in a white dress, whom I didn't know either.
I glanced back toward the balcony and saw that Claire was now looking at me, very evenly. She smiled at me, a smile that might be considered strange, or perhaps it was just the shadows on her face that gave me that impression.
She was leaning up against the railing, her arms out, gripping with both hands the topmost bar. She was very beautiful.
Everyone said that she was very beautiful. And again, that evening, I thought that it was true.
I went up to the doorway, but not actually out onto the balcony. Claire didn't move. I watched the people going by on the boulevard behind her, strolling along in the warm evening past the brightly lighted windows. I made some inconsequential remark about the scene and Claire seemed to agree, although I couldn't quite make out just what she had said.
I looked at her face and saw that once again she was staring at something, now behind me, in the same general direction as before. I didn't want to turn around to see if it was the same group I had already caught her staring at like this, but I was sure it was since her face had the same expression, that is, no expression at all.
I took a few steps out onto the balcony, which went all the way around the building, until I found myself outside the next pair of doors, these closed. I automatically looked inside between the tulle curtains. Our hostess happened to be standing right inside and said something to me which I didn't catch, not being able to hear it through the glass or make out anything from the movement of her lips. Madame X... unbolted the doors and partly opened them to repeat her remark, but the curtains were still in the way so I finally stepped inside. It turned out she had only asked why I was hiding out there, as a sort of joke.
At a loss for conversation, I brought up the subject of the young girl in the white dress, whom I glanced at to show her who I meant: But she didn't seem to know anything about her, or at least wasn't going to tell me. She only said that she was a friend of Claire's, who had come with Claire, and that she hadn't been able to get two words out of her all evening.
In effect, the girl hardly seemed able to answer the two young men who were talking to her. She avoided looking at either of them, and most of the time stared at the floor.
She was attractive, however, with a good figure as far as I could tell, and a pretty face. She was even really quite seductive.
Every part of her, despite her extreme youth, gave off an aura of “flesh” which made one think of her far more as a “young woman” than as that ambiguous term, a “girl”. And yet, in her little white dress, she looked like a child more than anything else.
Madame X... had to leave me, summoned by her duties as a hostess. As I continued to observe the girl, her eyes still lowered, I remembered clearly the look that Claire had given her. Al though I could not see Claire from where I was standing, I was sure that she was still on the bal cony, leaning back, gripping the railing with her hands. Her expression had seemed at once intent and empty, the look of one viewing a rerun of a successful film one has directed oneself, whose plot couldn't possibly have any surprises.
Claire was very beautiful, as I said, probably even more beautiful than her friend in the white dress. But unlike the latter, she had never aroused any real emotion in me. This astonished me at first, I even told myself that it was her impeccable beauty, precisely, her very perfection that made it impossible to think of her as a potential “conquest.” I probably needed to feel that some little thing about her, at least, was vulnerable, in order to arouse any desire in me to win her.
I went over to the open doors as I had done before, but this time with a purpose; and I glanced out onto the balcony. Claire was not there.
I took a few more steps and looked to the right and the left: there was nobody on the balcony at all. Fearing that someone had noticed this ma neuver, I pretended that I needed some fresh air and leaned for a while on the railing watching the people stroll along the boulevard past the brightly lighted windows, in the warm evening.
A little later, sitting near a large sofa where a group was in a heated discussion about the latest literary fraud, I had a chance to observe the girl in the white dress more closely.
The more I looked at her, her features and lines of her body, the more graceful she seemed, gentle and shy, with the movements of a timid ballerina whose slight awkwardness only makes her charm all the more touching. She was passing a tray of refreshments to a group of men who were obvi ously more interested in her than in helping them selves. Her dress had a full skirt and a fitted waist, with a top that fell off her shoulders, revealing them to be round and gleaming, lightly tanned.
“And what about you, Jean de Berg, you're not taking sides?”
It was X... himself dragging me back into the conversation.
In turning to face him I suddenly caught Claire's eye. She was watching me, her gaze resting quietly on me. She was leaning against the wall on the far side of the room, smoking a ciga rette, alone, away from everybody, next to an empty chair. She smiled at me briefly, a strange smile that made me think of the first one.
Later that evening, as I was getting ready to leave, I noticed Claire making her way toward me, obviously with something on her mind.
“I'm going,” she said. “If you like we could have a drink somewhere, to forget about this dreadful party.” She acted as though she were granting me some favor I'd been begging of her for a long time. I didn't answer right away, not knowing quite how to find out if her young friend would be going along with us or not. But Claire quickly added:
“You can get to know Anne. You'll see, she's very nice.” She stressed the word “nice” in a way that struck me as being rather odd. I raised my eyebrows and asked:
“Yes, that child there,” Claire said, pointing to her although she was just a few feet away, sitting in a chair by herself with her hands crossed in her lap. I inquired, in my most offhand tone:
“Who is she, anyway?”
“Just a young model,” Claire said condescendingly. (Did I mention that she was something of a photographer?)
“Well, she belongs to me,” Claire said simply.
We were the only people in the back part of the bar where we had settled ourselves. Claire had given our order right away, scarcely consulting me and not even bothering to ask Anne what she wanted: mineral water all around. The waiter served us quickly.
Claire took an American cigarette from the pack I had left on the table and lighted it for herself. Then she looked at her friend and leaning toward her, rearranged a strand of hair, fine blonde hair with highlights of gold.
“She's pretty, isn't she?”
Claire said this as though it were a challenge. I answered,
“Yes, very,” in a way that could have been merely polite.
“Yes, she's very pretty,” Claire insisted, “and more than that, even. You'll see.”
I looked at the girl, who hadn't moved a muscle, and kept her eyes lowered on her glass of mineral water, in which little bubbles still rose steadily to ward the surface.
“You can touch her, if you like,” Claire said.
I glanced at her, wondering if perhaps she were a little drunk. But she seemed perfectly normal, rather cynical, just the way I had always known her.
“You'll see: it's very pleasant.”
I wondered again about her use of the future tense, “You'll see,” and again I looked at that smooth, rounded shoulder, tanned against the white material of the dress. My right hand was resting on the back of the booth, and I only had to move it slightly forward to stroke the golden skin with the tips of my fingers. The young girl trem bled slightly, and looked up at me for a moment. “Very pleasant,” I conceded to Claire. Claire quickly added:
“And she has pretty eyes too, you know. Come on, look at the gentleman, so that he can see your eyes,” lifting the girl's chin gently, but with her fist closed. Little Anne looked at me for a few seconds, then lowered her eyes again, blushing. She had beautiful green eyes, it was true, very large, with long curved lashes. Claire was caressing her face now, talking to her quietly, as though talking to herself.
“A beautiful mouth, too... lovely soft lips... knowing lips... and pretty teeth... Pretty little white teeth... come on, let's look at them.” She opened her mouth with her fingers.
“Stay like that,” she said, her tone suddenly sharp.
Anne stayed as she had been put, like a good little girl, her mouth open to show a row of even, brilliantly white teeth. But it was to Claire that her face was turned.
Her open lips trembled a little, and I thought that she might be about to cry. I looked away, and drank a few swallows of mineral water.
“One day,” Claire said, “I'll show you some pho tographs that I took of her.”
At this, I thought I heard the girl object, or moan slightly, at least. She hadn't said a word since her first almost inaudible
“Monsieur,” accompanied by a graceful little curtsy, when we were introduced. Now I imagined her having murmured “Oh! No!” or something of the sort, which made me wonder about the propriety of the photographs in question.
But Claire suddenly showed signs of wanting to leave. As we were all getting up she turned to me again and asked:
“Well, how do you like her?” as though I were a prospective customer. At the same time she pushed the girl forward, holding her by the nape of the neck. Then, at point-blank range:
“She doesn't wear a bra, you know. I find it more amusing to make her go out without one.”
This time, the girl blushed deeply. I was sure that Claire was going to deliver herself of some new embarrassing remark about her friend's lack of some other customary undergarment but, con trary to my expectations, she refrained and only touched upon trivial subjects, at least for the rest of that evening.
Claire had arranged to meet me the following day: we were supposed to spend the afternoon to gether in the Bagatelle gardens.
She had insisted she wanted to show me the rose garden herself, which I hadn't seen as yet.
I knew enough, by now, not to ask whether we would be alone, or with her young friend.
In the past, when we saw each other, Claire had never expressed the slightest interest in showing me any kind of garden whatsoever, or any of her photographs, for that matter. Up until now she had never made the slightest attempt to meet me outside the various parties where fate would some times throw us together for an evening in the same company. For my part, I had never made any effort to lend more warmth to our relationship either. I have already said how little I was attracted by her too perfect beauty, too regular features, her rigidity. I could not recall, either, ever having received the least encouragement for my timid offers to be friendly when we first met, quite the contrary, in fact.