Authors: Sally Beauman
Tags: #Man-woman relationships
This book made available by the Internet Archive.
THE KINDEST OF MILITARY PHILOSOPHERS,
AND FOR ALAN,
WITH MY LOVE
Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust. . . .
WEBSTER: THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
The authorization was for two miUion dollars. It was the last letter of the day. He read through the paragraphs carefully, checking each line, and taking his time. Across the desk from him his senior secretary waited patiently, nothing in her manner betraying the fact that she was newly engaged, very much in love, and very anxious to go home. He glanced up at her and smiled. Outside the plate-glass windows the sun still shone, and from the street below, insulated and muffled by the glass, came the hum of the Paris traffic. It was six o'clock.
Paris in the summer; the Seine on a warm evening. He had known once, he thought, how the end of the day felt, when the evening was full of promise. Not now. He bent his head to the papers once more, picked up his platinum pen, and signed. Edouard de Chavigny.
He slid the white paper across the black desk, and then taking pity on her, said, "You may go now."
Her head lifted at once; she looked startled. Then the color rushed into her cheeks, and her eyes lit.
"It's only six o'clock."
"I know that. I suggest you go now. Before one of the telephones rings." His voice became dry. "Before I change my mind."
She needed no more prompting. As she gathered the papers, Edouard rose. He moved across the room, and stood with his back to her, looking out the windows. The commercial sector of Paris. Below him, in the street, the traffic was heavy; he saw it move forward, stop, move forward again. He rested his forehead for a moment against the glass. Across the street, a long way below, the wind caught the leaves of a plane tree; they were the dull heavy green of midsummer, but just for a second, as the air lifted them, and the light caught them, they danced.
"I'm leaving soon, in any case."
4 • SALLY BEAUMAN
She had reached the door, but when he spoke, she stopped. He could feel the curiosity in her gaze, a curiosity that was understandable, since he rarely left the de Chavigny building before eight.
"So early?" She could not keep the surprise out of her voice, and Edouard turned back with a lazy smile.
"Why not?" he said. "It's a fine evening."
He knew then, even as he spoke, even as he smiled, that the need was coming back, as strongly and as abruptly as it always did, just as if the past three weeks of uneasy celibacy had never happened.
The door closed, and with a sense of despair he turned back to the window and this time pressed his forehead hard against the glass. The need possessed him; it infiltrated, blackly, every comer of his mind, clouding his vision, smothering any ability to think. The need, and the despair in the need; they came always together. He turned angrily away from the glass.
He wanted a woman. Women, for a time, always made him forget.
There were other palliatives, he had learned that. Music. Speed, for he liked to drive fast. Alcohol, sometimes.
Work, often. But none of them was as swift, and none of them was as certain as sex; sex freed him for a while—until the next time the pain came back.
He despised the need, and he had come to hate the remedy, and so—^as he always did—he tried to fight it. Leaving his offices, dismissing his driver, he took his own car, the black Aston-Martin that Gregoire had so loved. It was powerful, and fast; he edged it through the crowded streets, holding the great engine in check, and then made his way out of the city, where he could accelerate. He switched on the radio and turned up the volume. Music and speed; the combination sometimes worked.
He felt as if the Beethoven fueled the car, as if he traveled on sound— and for a time, he grew calmer. He knew why this had happened, knew precisely what had provoked the need now. Memories, of course—which he could never keep entirely at bay, no matter how hard he contrived to fill every second of every day. Memories which came at him when he least expected them, out of the calm of a summer evening, out of the expectation seen in a woman's face: images of his past, the recollection of happiness which could never be recaptured.
The music reached a small angry crescendo, then tumbled away. He thought, resigning himself: very well; a woman then —and at the next intersection, he turned off".
The Right Bank, past expensive houses and expensive shops. He passed the showrooms of the de Chavigny jewelry division, the celebrated windows. From the comer of his eye, he glimpsed black velvet and the bright ice of diamonds. He, so notorious for his gifts to women, had never given diamonds. Sapphires, rubies, emeralds—yes, but never diamonds. He had never even been tempted; something made him hold them back.
"A perfect stone, Edouard." His father's voice. Holding the diamond to the light. "Do you see? Perfect coloration. Without flaws."
He spun the wheel, heading toward the Pont Neuf. He was not seeking perfection now, he told himself. Nor absolutes. Life was without absolutes, and without certainties. Except, of course, death—and he glanced down at the Seine, which sparkled.
The Left Bank. He took the Quai des Augustins, then swung right into the Boulevard St. Michel. There he slowed, and began to look for a woman.
The streets were crowded. People milled and pushed outside the shops, the metro, the comer tabac. The evening air was still and balmy. From the cafes, as he passed, came the sound of the breathy love song he had heard played everywhere, all summer.
He could feel the impulsion mounting now, and the despair gathering force, and he slowed the car, letting it cruise past the cafes. A great many tourists, and—in this quarter—students; he caught the sound of their voices in the hot still air: English, American, Italian, Swedish. He saw heads turn as he passed, saw women's faces. They glanced at the powerful car, they glanced at the driver, then leaned forward again over their little cups of cafe noir, fumbling for a Gauloise, glancing back more lingeringly, giggling . . .
No one I know, or need know, he thought; a stranger, a foreigner, a woman here in Paris today and elsewhere tomorrow. Two girls caught his eye as he slowed at an intersection. They were sitting out on the terrasse. One, a redhead; as he glanced in her direction, he saw her throw back her head and laugh. A beautiful, slender neck, full breasts, the milk-white skin of redheads. Her companion could have been French: a Juliette Greco lookalike, of whom there were many. Wearing black, of course, with long moumful black hair, a dead-white face, eyes ringed with heavy black liner. She looked nervous, not quite at ease in her coflfee-bar existentialist uniform; she fiddled with her coffee spoon.
He hesitated for a second, then touched the accelerator.
He always avoided women with red hair because they reminded him of a
6 • SALLY BEAUMAN
part of his past he preferred to forget, and the girl's boldness alienated him. The other looked like the kind of woman who went through life getting hurt; if that was her fate, he did not want to contribute to it.
He turned down a narrow side street, past the dark walls and jutting gargoyles of the Eglise St. Severin. Past a Moroccan restaurant, and the scents of cumin and meat roasting on an open grill; past huge jagged graffiti: Algerie Franqaise. He averted his eyes from the words, and turned the wheel abruptly.
Two more streets, narrow, winding: a tramp, out cold, lying across the vents of the metro; two lovers, arm in arm, laughing together as they came out of a cinema. A tight bend, and then right, into the Rue St. Juhen le Pauvre.
Ahead of him, on the left-hand side, there was a small park, and beyond it the tiny church of St. Julien, one of the most ancient in Paris. In the park, children were playing; he caught for an instant the sound of their voices above the murmur of the traffic on the quai beyond. He caught a flash of color from their clothes: navy, white, scarlet—French children's colors, liberation colors. And then he saw the woman.
Afterward—eight, ten, twelve years later—that moment would come back to him with absolute precision. Just as it was then: the cries of the children; the sound of the cars; the rustle of the gravel as the children ran; the sensation of color in the comer of the eye; the mounting urgency and simultaneous despair in his own body; and then—the woman. The girl.
When he saw her, there was suddenly nothing but her. All sound was silenced; space narrowed to the space she occupied. He saw only the woman, bright space, and her face, lifted.
She was standing outside the small church, and looking up at it, her face raised and outlined against the light, her back to the street. She had hair of an extraordinary pale gold, reaching just to her shoulders, the ends cropped bluntly, as if she had taken the scissors to it herself. As he looked, the breeze lifted the hair away from her face, creating a halo of light around her profile.
She turned then, for an instant, with a half-frown, as if she had felt his gaze, or someone had called to her. But he had not called; he had not moved; the powerful car stood stationary, twenty feet away. She drew her brows together, looking down the street in the direction of the quai, and he was close enough to see that her brows were dark and straight above wide-spaced gray-blue eyes of exceptional beauty.
She did not appear to see him, and she turned back again to inspect the church. Edouard stared at her. His pulse had slowed; the insistent hammering of the senses had stopped; he was conscious, dimly, of a dreamlike
DESTINY • 7
sense of power, a hallucinatory clarity, as if he moved toward her while he remained still.
She was perhaps nineteen, maybe a little older. Tall. Very slender. Wearing the international uniform of the young: blue Levi jeans; flat canvas shoes; the plainest white T-shirt, which clung to the contours of her high rounded breasts. There were a thousand other girls in St. Germain wearing clothes almost exactly similar. There had been dozens in the cafes he had just passed. But this girl resembled none of them; he looked at her and saw physical perfection, beauty as undeniable, as assertive, as perfection in any other form. He saw it in the girl as he would have seen it in the heart of a diamond. So he hesitated only a fraction, and then—as he had known he would—eased the car forward, pulled into the curb, and stopped.
He had meant to get out of the car to approach her, but she forestalled him. As he reached for the door handle, she turned and looked at him: a long straight quantifying look, without flirtatiousness, without coyness. She looked at him as if she were memorizing his face for an identity line-up, and Edouard looked back at her. Then, before he could move, she walked over to the car.
She stood there, at the end of the long black hood, and looked at him gravely, still with that slight frown knitting her brows, almost as if she half-recognized him and was trying to place him in her memory. Her stance was calm and graceful, and he could see the quahty in her face now, as well as the beauty: the intelligence in her eyes, the character in the set of her hps.
Her face silenced him; the need and the despair left him, leaving his mind washed clear and extraordinarily calm.
He looked at her, and felt a shock of recognition: a woman who was at once famiUar to him; a woman he had never seen before.
Her eyes met his levelly, and then, quite suddenly she smiled. There was a certain mockery in the smile, a teasing quahty, as if she had just decided to make something easy for him.
"I'm sorry. I thought I recognized you."
She spoke in French, the accent correct, but not quite perfect. English, he thought, or American.
"I thought the same."
"Then we're both mistaken."
"Or both right."
He smiled at her then, and then stopped smiling abruptly because he realized he must do something and say something quickly—and he had no
8 • SALLY BEAUMAN
idea in the world what it might be. His mind was locked into a cadence of such calm that it was very difficult to think of words at all. Especially words that could so easily be misinterpreted; he was suddenly appalled by the possibility that she might misunderstand.
To give himself time, as much as anything else, he opened his door, got out of the car, and walked around to stand at her side. As he did so, he felt a certain amusement. He knew his own reputation; he knew people spoke of his charm, and claimed that he turned it on and off at will. He knew he was judged cold, and unresponsive, and that people who did not know how much it cost him spoke enviously of his self-possession.
He felt no self-possession now, and he certainly did not feel cold or unresponsive; he felt disarmed—a man of thirty-four, and at the same time, a vulnerable boy.
She was tall for a woman, but he was taller still. She lifted her face, and looked up into his eyes. There was a silence, which seemed to him to go on for several hours, or possibly several lifetimes. Then he said—something had to be said—"I think you ought to have dinner with me." He supposed he said it with charm, he certainly tried to, but to say anything at all seemed so absurd that he instantly wished he had said nothing. He felt a moment's dissociation, in which he saw them both with a third person's eyes: a tall, dark-haired man in a beautifully cut, very formal black suit which resembled in every respect all the other suits he wore, and a slender fair-haired young woman. It was instantly obvious to him that she would refuse. Probably indignantly.
"Ought?" She frowned very slightly again, and then her face cleared. "I think so too," she said firmly, and without waiting for him to open the door of the car, opened it herself and climbed in.
Edouard returned to the driver's seat. He started the engine. He released the brake, pushed in the clutch, engaged the gears—he supposed he did all these things, though he was not conscious of any of them. The car moved forward. As they passed the arched doorway of St. Julien, she glanced at him. "It's such a beautiful church. And it was locked. Can one ever go in?"