I was sitting on the pier of the small port of Obernon, near the village of Salis, looking at Antibes, bathed in the setting sun. I had never before seen anything so wonderful and so beautiful.
The small town, enclosed by its massive ramparts, built by Monsieur de Vauban, extended into the open sea, in the middle of the immense Gulf of Nice. The great waves, coming in from the ocean, broke at its feet, surrounding it with a wreath of foam; and beyond the ramparts the houses climbed up the hill, one after the other, as far as the two towers, which rose up into the sky, like the peaks of an ancient helmet. And these two towers were outlined against the milky whiteness of the Alps, that enormous distant wall of snow which enclosed the entire horizon.
Between the white foam at the foot of the walls and the white snow on the sky-line the little city, dazzling against the bluish background of the nearest mountain ranges, presented to the rays of the setting sun a pyramid of red-roofed houses, whose facades were also white, but so different one from another that they seemed to be of all tints.
And the sky above the Alps was itself of a blue that was almost white, as if the snow had tinted it; some silvery clouds were floating just over the pale summits, and on the other side of the gulf Nice, lying close to the water, stretched like a white thread between the sea and the mountain. Two great sails, driven by a strong breeze, seemed to skim over the waves. I looked upon all this, astounded.
This view was one of those sweet, rare, delightful things that seem to permeate you and are unforgettable, like the memory of a great happiness. One sees, thinks, suffers, is moved and loves with the eyes. He who can feel with the eye experiences the same keen, exquisite and deep pleasure in looking at men and things as the man with the delicate and sensitive ear, whose soul music overwhelms.
I turned to my companion, M. Martini, a pureblooded Southerner.
“This is certainly one of the rarest sights which it has been vouchsafed to me to admire.
“I have seen Mont Saint-Michel, that monstrous granite jewel, rise out of the sand at sunrise.
“I have seen, in the Sahara, Lake Raianechergui, fifty kilometers long, shining under a moon as brilliant as our sun and breathing up toward it a white cloud, like a mist of milk.
“I have seen, in the Lipari Islands, the weird sulphur crater of the Volcanello, a giant flower which smokes and burns, an enormous yellow flower, opening out in the midst of the sea, whose stem is a volcano.
“But I have seen nothing more wonderful than Antibes, standing against the Alps in the setting sun.
“And I know not how it is that memories of antiquity haunt me; verses of Homer come into my mind; this is a city of the ancient East, a city of the odyssey; this is Troy, although Troy was very far from the sea.”
M. Martini drew the Sarty guide-book out of his pocket and read: “This city was originally a colony founded by the Phocians of Marseilles, about 340 B.C. They gave it the Greek name of Antipolis, meaning counter-city, city opposite another, because it is in fact opposite to Nice, another colony from Marseilles.
“After the Gauls were conquered, the Romans turned Antibes into a municipal city, its inhabitants receiving the rights of Roman citizenship.
“We know by an epigram of Martial that at this time–”
I interrupted him:
“I don’t care what she was. I tell you that I see down there a city of the Odyssey. The coast of Asia and the coast of Europe resemble each other in their shores, and there is no city on the other coast of the Mediterranean which awakens in me the memories of the heroic age as this one does.”
A footstep caused me to turn my head; a woman, a large, dark woman, was walking along the road which skirts the sea in going to the cape.
“That is Madame Parisse, you know,” muttered Monsieur Martini, dwelling on the final syllable.
No, I did not know, but that name, mentioned carelessly, that name of the Trojan shepherd, confirmed me in my dream.
However, I asked: “Who is this Madame Parisse?”
He seemed astonished that I did not know the story.
I assured him that I did not know it, and I looked after the woman, who passed by without seeing us, dreaming, walking with steady and slow step, as doubtless the ladies of old walked.
She was perhaps thirty-five years old and still very beautiful, though a trifle stout.
And Monsieur Martini told me the following story:
Mademoiselle Combelombe was married, one year before the war of 1870, to Monsieur Parisse, a government official. She was then a handsome young girl, as slender and lively as she has now become stout and sad.
Unwillingly she had accepted Monsieur Parisse, one of those little fat men with short legs, who trip along, with trousers that are always too large.
After the war Antibes was garrisoned by a single battalion commanded by Monsieur Jean de Carmelin, a young officer decorated during the war, and who had just received his four stripes.
As he found life exceedingly tedious in this fortress this stuffy mole-hole enclosed by its enormous double walls, he often strolled out to the cape, a kind of park or pine wood shaken by all the winds from the sea.
There he met Madame Parisse, who also came out in the summer evenings to get the fresh air under the trees. How did they come to love each other? Who knows? They met, they looked at each other, and when out of sight they doubtless thought of each other. The image of the young woman with the brown eyes, the black hair, the pale skin, this fresh, handsome Southerner, who displayed her teeth in smiling, floated before the eyes of the officer as he continued his promenade, chewing his cigar instead of smoking it; and the image of the commanding officer, in his close-fitting coat, covered with gold lace, and his red trousers, and a little blond mustache, would pass before the eyes of Madame Parisse, when her husband, half shaven and ill-clad, short-legged and big-bellied, came home to supper in the evening.
As they met so often, they perhaps smiled at the next meeting; then, seeing each other again and again, they felt as if they knew each other. He certainly bowed to her. And she, surprised, bowed in return, but very, very slightly, just enough not to appear impolite. But after two weeks she returned his salutation from a distance, even before they were side by side.
He spoke to her. Of what? Doubtless of the setting sun. They admired it together, looking for it in each other’s eyes more often than on the horizon. And every evening for two weeks this was the commonplace and persistent pretext for a few minutes’ chat.
Then they ventured to take a few steps together, talking of anything that came into their minds, but their eyes were already saying to each other a thousand more intimate things, those secret, charming things that are reflected in the gentle emotion of the glance, and that cause the heart to beat, for they are a better revelation of the soul than the spoken word.
And then he would take her hand, murmuring those words which the woman divines, without seeming to hear them.
And it was agreed between them that they would love each other without evidencing it by anything sensual or brutal.
She would have remained indefinitely at this stage of intimacy, but he wanted more. And every day he urged her more hotly to give in to his ardent desire.
She resisted, would not hear of it, seemed determined not to give way.
But one evening she said to him casually: “My husband has just gone to Marseilles. He will be away four days.”
Jean de Carmelin threw himself at her feet, imploring her to open her door to him that very night at eleven o’clock. But she would not listen to him, and went home, appearing to be annoyed.
The commandant was in a bad humor all the evening, and the next morning at dawn he went out on the ramparts in a rage, going from one exercise field to the other, dealing out punishment to the officers and men as one might fling stones into a crowd.
On going in to breakfast he found an envelope under his napkin with these four words: “To-night at ten.” And he gave one hundred sous without any reason to the waiter.
The day seemed endless to him. He passed part of it in curling his hair and perfuming himself.
As he was sitting down to the dinner-table another envelope was handed to him, and in it he found the following telegram:
“My Love: Business completed. I return this evening on the nine o’clock train.
The commandant let loose such a vehement oath that the waiter dropped the soup-tureen on the floor.
What should he do? He certainly wanted her, that very, evening at whatever cost; and he would have her. He would resort to any means, even to arresting and imprisoning the husband. Then a mad thought struck him. Calling for paper, he wrote the following note:
MADAME: He will not come back this evening, I swear it to you,–and
I shall be, you know where, at ten o’clock. Fear nothing. I will
answer for everything, on my honor as an officer.
JEAN DE CARMELIN.
And having sent off this letter, he quietly ate his dinner.
Toward eight o’clock he sent for Captain Gribois, the second in command, and said, rolling between his fingers the crumpled telegram of Monsieur Parisse:
“Captain, I have just received a telegram of a very singular nature, which it is impossible for me to communicate to you. You will immediately have all the gates of the city closed and guarded, so that no one, mind me, no one, will either enter or leave before six in the morning. You will also have men patrol the streets, who will compel the inhabitants to retire to their houses at nine o’clock. Any one found outside beyond that time will be conducted to his home ‘manu militari’. If your men meet me this night they will at once go out of my way, appearing not to know me. You understand me?”
“I hold you responsible for the execution of my orders, my dear captain.”
“Would you like to have a glass of chartreuse?”
“With great pleasure, commandant.”
They clinked glasses drank down the brown liquor and Captain Gribois left the room.
The train from Marseilles arrived at the station at nine o’clock sharp, left two passengers on the platform and went on toward Nice.
One of them, tall and thin, was Monsieur Saribe, the oil merchant, and the other, short and fat, was Monsieur Parisse.
Together they set out, with their valises, to reach the city, one kilometer distant.
But on arriving at the gate of the port the guards crossed their bayonets, commanding them to retire.
Frightened, surprised, cowed with astonishment, they retired to deliberate; then, after having taken counsel one with the other, they came back cautiously to parley, giving their names.
But the soldiers evidently had strict orders, for they threatened to shoot; and the two scared travellers ran off, throwing away their valises, which impeded their flight.
Making the tour of the ramparts, they presented themselves at the gate on the route to Cannes. This likewise was closed and guarded by a menacing sentinel. Messrs. Saribe and Parisse, like the prudent men they were, desisted from their efforts and went back to the station for shelter, since it was not safe to be near the fortifications after sundown.
The station agent, surprised and sleepy, permitted them to stay till morning in the waiting-room.
And they sat there side by side, in the dark, on the green velvet sofa, too scared to think of sleeping.
It was a long and weary night for them.
At half-past six in the morning they were informed that the gates were open and that people could now enter Antibes.
They set out for the city, but failed to find their abandoned valises on the road.
When they passed through the gates of the city, still somewhat anxious, the Commandant de Carmelin, with sly glance and mustache curled up, came himself to look at them and question them.
Then he bowed to them politely, excusing himself for having caused them a bad night. But he had to carry out orders.
The people of Antibes were scared to death. Some spoke of a surprise planned by the Italians, others of the landing of the prince imperial and others again believed that there was an Orleanist conspiracy. The truth was suspected only later, when it became known that the battalion of the commandant had been sent away, to a distance and that Monsieur de Carmelin had been severely punished.
Monsieur Martini had finished his story. Madame Parisse returned, her promenade being ended. She passed gravely near me, with her eyes fixed on the Alps, whose summits now gleamed rosy in the last rays of the setting sun.
I longed to speak to her, this poor, sad woman, who would ever be thinking of that night of love, now long past, and of the bold man who for the sake of a kiss from her had dared to put a city into a state of siege and to compromise his whole future.
And to-day he had probably forgotten her, if he did not relate this audacious, comical and tender farce to his comrades over their cups.
Had she seen him again? Did she still love him? And I thought: Here is an instance of modern love, grotesque and yet heroic. The Homer who should sing of this new Helen and the adventure of her Menelaus must be gifted with the soul of a Paul de Kock. And yet the hero of this deserted woman was brave, daring, handsome, strong as Achilles and more cunning than Ulysses.