Two years ago this spring I was making a walking tour along the shore of the Mediterranean. Is there anything more pleasant than to meditate while walking at a good pace along a highway? One walks in the sunlight, through the caressing breeze, at the foot of the mountains, along the coast of the sea. And one dreams! What a flood of illusions, loves, adventures pass through a pedestrian’s mind during a two hours’ march! What a crowd of confused and joyous hopes enter into you with the mild, light air! You drink them in with the breeze, and they awaken in your heart a longing for happiness which increases with the hun ger induced by walking. The fleeting, charming ideas fly and sing like birds.
I was following that long road which goes from Saint Raphael to Italy, or, rather, that long, splendid panoramic highway which seems made for the representation of all the love-poems of earth. And I thought that from Cannes, where one poses, to Monaco, where one gambles, people come to this spot of the earth for hardly any other purpose than to get embroiled or to throw away money on chance games, displaying under this delicious sky and in this garden of roses and oranges all base vanities and foolish pretensions and vile lusts, showing up the human mind such as it is, servile, ignorant, arrogant and full of cupidity.
Suddenly I saw some villas in one of those ravishing bays that one meets at every turn of the mountain; there were only four or five fronting the sea at the foot of the mountains, and behind them a wild fir wood slopes into two great valleys, that were untraversed by roads. I stopped short before one of these chalets, it was so pretty: a small white house with brown trimmings, overrun with rambler roses up to the top.
The garden was a mass of flowers, of all colors and all kinds, mixed in a coquettish, well-planned disorder. The lawn was full of them, big pots flanked each side of every step of the porch, pink or yellow clusters framed each window, and the terrace with the stone balustrade, which enclosed this pretty little dwelling, had a garland of enormous red bells, like drops of blood. Behind the house I saw a long avenue of orange trees in blossom, which went up to the foot of the mountain.
Over the door appeared the name, “Villa d’Antan,” in small gold letters.
I asked myself what poet or what fairy was living there, what inspired, solitary being had discovered this spot and created this dream house, which seemed to nestle in a nosegay.
A workman was breaking stones up the street, and I went to him to ask the name of the proprietor of this jewel.
“It is Madame Julie Romain,” he replied.
Julie Romain! In my childhood, long ago, I had heard them speak of this great actress, the rival of Rachel.
No woman ever was more applauded and more loved–especially more loved! What duets and suicides on her account and what sensational adventures! How old was this seductive woman now? Sixty, seventy, seventy-five! Julie Romain here, in this house! The woman who had been adored by the greatest musician and the most exquisite poet of our land! I still remember the sensation (I was then twelve years of age) which her flight to Sicily with the latter, after her rupture with the former, caused throughout France.
She had left one evening, after a premiere, where the audience had applauded her for a whole half hour, and had recalled her eleven times in succession. She had gone away with the poet, in a post-chaise, as was the fashion then; they had crossed the sea, to love each other in that antique island, the daughter of Greece, in that immense orange wood which surrounds Palermo, and which is called the “Shell of Gold.”
People told of their ascension of Mount Etna and how they had leaned over the immense crater, arm in arm, cheek to cheek, as if to throw themselves into the very abyss.
Now he was dead, that maker of verses so touching and so profound that they turned, the heads of a whole generation, so subtle and so mysterious that they opened a new world to the younger poets.
The other one also was dead–the deserted one, who had attained through her musical periods that are alive in the memories of all, periods of triumph and of despair, intoxicating triumph and heartrending despair.
And she was there, in that house veiled by flowers.
I did not hesitate, but rang the bell.
A small servant answered, a boy of eighteen with awkward mien and clumsy hands. I wrote in pencil on my card a gallant compliment to the actress, begging her to receive me. Perhaps, if she knew my name, she would open her door to me.
The little valet took it in, and then came back, asking me to follow him. He led me to a neat and decorous salon, furnished in the Louis-Philippe style, with stiff and heavy furniture, from which a little maid of sixteen, slender but not pretty, took off the covers in my honor.
Then I was left alone.
On the walls hung three portraits, that of the actress in one of her roles, that of the poet in his close-fitting greatcoat and the ruffled shirt then in style, and that of the musician seated at a piano.
She, blond, charming, but affected, according to the fashion of her day, was smiling, with her pretty mouth and blue eyes; the painting was careful, fine, elegant, but lifeless.
Those faces seemed to be already looking upon posterity.
The whole place had the air of a bygone time, of days that were done and men who had vanished.
A door opened and a little woman entered, old, very old, very small, with white hair and white eyebrows, a veritable white mouse, and as quick and furtive of movement.
She held out her hand to me, saying in a voice still fresh, sonorous and vibrant:
“Thank you, monsieur. How kind it is of the men of to-day to remember the women of yesterday! Sit down.”
I told her that her house had attracted me, that I had inquired for the proprietor’s name, and that, on learning it, I could not resist the desire to ring her bell.
“This gives me all the more pleasure, monsieur,” she replied, “as it is the first time that such a thing has happened. When I received your card, with the gracious note, I trembled as if an old friend who had disappeared for twenty years had been announced to me. I am like a dead body, whom no one remembers, of whom no one will think until the day when I shall actually die; then the newspapers will mention Julie Romain for three days, relating anecdotes and details of my life, reviving memories, and praising me greatly. Then all will be over with me.”
After a few moments of silence, she continued:
“And this will not be so very long now. In a few months, in a few days, nothing will remain but a little skeleton of this little woman who is now alive.”
She raised her eyes toward her portrait, which smiled down upon this caricature of herself; then she looked at those of the two men, the disdainful poet and the inspired musician, who seemed to say: “What does this ruin want of us?”
An indefinable, poignant, irresistible sadness overwhelmed my heart, the sadness of existences that have had their day, but who are still debating with their memories, like a person drowning in deep water.
From my seat I could see on the highroad the handsome carriages that were whirling from Nice to Monaco; inside them I saw young, pretty, rich and happy women and smiling, satisfied men. Following my eye, she understood my thought and murmured with a smile of resignation:
“One cannot both be and have been.”
“How beautiful life must have been for you!” I said.
She heaved a great sigh.
“Beautiful and sweet! And for that reason I regret it so much.”
I saw that she was disposed to talk of herself, so I began to question her, gently and discreetly, as one might touch bruised flesh.
She spoke of her successes, her intoxications and her friends, of her whole triumphant existence.
“Was it on the stage that you found your most intense joys, your true happiness?” I asked.
“Oh, no!” she replied quickly.
I smiled; then, raising her eyes to the two portraits, she said, with a sad glance:
“It was with them.”
“Which one?” I could not help asking.
“Both. I even confuse them up a little now in my old woman’s memory, and then I feel remorse.”
“Then, madame, your acknowledgment is not to them, but to Love itself. They were merely its interpreters.”
“That is possible. But what interpreters!”
“Are you sure that you have not been, or that you might not have been, loved as well or better by a simple man, but not a great man, who would have offered to you his whole life and heart, all his thoughts, all his days, his whole being, while these gave you two redoubtable rivals, Music and Poetry?”
“No, monsieur, no!” she exclaimed emphatically, with that still youthful voice, which caused the soul to vibrate. “Another one might perhaps have loved me more, but he would not have loved me as these did. Ah! those two sang to me of the music of love as no one else in the world could have sung of it. How they intoxicated me! Could any other man express what they knew so well how to express in tones and in words? Is it enough merely to love if one cannot put all the poetry and all the music of heaven and earth into love? And they knew how to make a woman delirious with songs and with words. Yes, perhaps there was more of illusion than of reality in our passion; but these illusions lift you into the clouds, while realities always leave you trailing in the dust. If others have loved me more, through these two I have understood, felt and worshipped love.”
Suddenly she began to weep.
She wept silently, shedding tears of despair.
I pretended not to see, looking off into the distance. She resumed, after a few minutes:
“You see, monsieur, with nearly every one the heart ages with the body. But this has not happened with me. My body is sixty-nine years old, while my poor heart is only twenty. And that is the reason why I live all alone, with my flowers and my dreams.”
There was a long silence between us. She grew calmer and continued, smiling:
“How you would laugh at me, if you knew, if you knew how I pass my evenings, when the weather is fine. I am ashamed and I pity myself at the same time.”
Beg as I might, she would not tell me what she did. Then I rose to leave.
“Already!” she exclaimed.
And as I said that I wished to dine at Monte Carlo, she asked timidly:
“Will you not dine with me? It would give me a great deal of pleasure.”
I accepted at once. She rang, delighted, and after giving some orders to the little maid she took me over her house.
A kind of glass-enclosed veranda, filled with shrubs, opened into the dining-room, revealing at the farther end the long avenue of orange trees extending to the foot of the mountain. A low seat, hidden by plants, indicated that the old actress often came there to sit down.
Then we went into the garden, to look at the flowers. Evening fell softly, one of those calm, moist evenings when the earth breathes forth all her perfumes. Daylight was almost gone when we sat down at table. The dinner was good and it lasted a long time, and we became intimate friends, she and I, when she understood what a profound sympathy she had aroused in my heart. She had taken two thimblefuls of wine, as the phrase goes, and had grown more confiding and expansive.
“Come, let us look at the moon,” she said. “I adore the good moon. She has been the witness of my most intense joys. It seems to me that all my memories are there, and that I need only look at her to bring them all back to me. And even–some times–in the evening–I offer to myself a pretty play–yes, pretty–if you only knew! But no, you would laugh at me. I cannot–I dare not–no, no–really–no.”
I implored her to tell me what it was.
“Come, now! come, tell me; I promise you that I will not laugh. I swear it to you–come, now!”
She hesitated. I took her hands–those poor little hands, so thin and so cold!–and I kissed them one after the other, several times, as her lovers had once kissed them. She was moved and hesitated.
“You promise me not to laugh?”
“Yes, I swear it to you.”
“Well, then, come.”
She rose, and as the little domestic, awkward in his green livery, removed the chair behind her, she whispered quickly a few words into his ear.
“Yes, madame, at once,” he replied.
She took my arm and led me to the veranda.
The avenue of oranges was really splendid to see. The full moon made a narrow path of silver, a long bright line, which fell on the yellow sand, between the round, opaque crowns of the dark trees.
As these trees were in bloom, their strong, sweet perfume filled the night, and swarming among their dark foliage I saw thousands of fireflies, which looked like seeds fallen from the stars.
“Oh, what a setting for a love scene!” I exclaimed.
“Is it not true? Is it not true? You will see!”
And she made me sit down beside her.
“This is what makes one long for more life. But you hardly think of these things, you men of to-day. You are speculators, merchants and men of affairs.
You no longer even know how to talk to us. When I say ‘you,’ I mean young men in general. Love has been turned into a liaison which very often begins with an unpaid dressmaker’s bill. If you think the bill is dearer than the woman, you disappear; but if you hold the woman more highly, you pay it. Nice morals–and a nice kind of love!”
She took my hand.
I looked, astonished and delighted. Down there at the end of the avenue, in the moonlight, were two young people, with their arms around each other’s waist. They were walking along, interlaced, charming, with short, little steps, crossing the flakes of light; which illuminated them momentarily, and then sinking back into the shadow. The youth was dressed in a suit of white satin, such as men wore in the eighteenth century, and had on a hat with an ostrich plume. The girl was arrayed in a gown with panniers, and the high, powdered coiffure of the handsome dames of the time of the Regency.
They stopped a hundred paces from us, and standing in the middle of the avenue, they kissed each other with graceful gestures.
Suddenly I recognized the two little servants. Then one of those dreadful fits of laughter that convulse you made me writhe in my chair. But I did not laugh aloud. I resisted, convulsed and feeling almost ill, as a man whose leg is cut off resists the impulse to cry out.
As the young pair turned toward the farther end of the avenue they again became delightful. They went farther and farther away, finally disappearing as a dream disappears. I no longer saw them. The avenue seemed a sad place.
I took my leave at once, so as not to see them again, for I guessed that this little play would last a long time, awakening, as it did, a whole past of love and of stage scenery; the artificial past, deceitful and seductive, false but charming, which still stirred the heart of this amorous old comedienne.