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The Hairpin

2006-09-08 13:28

    I WILL NOT RECORD THE NAME EITHER OF THE COUNTRY OR OF the man concerned. It was far, very far from this part of the world, on a fertile and scorching sea-coast. All morning we had been following a coast clothed with crops and a blue sea clothed in sunlight. Flowers thrust up their heads quite close to the waves, rippling waves, so gentle, drowsing. It was hot——a relaxing heat, redolent of the rich soil, damp and fruitful: one almost heard the rising of the sap. I had been told that, in the evening, I could obtain hospitality in the house of a Frenchman, who lived at the end of a headland, in an orange grove. Who was he? I did not yet know. He had arrived one morning, ten years ago; he had bought a piece of ground, planted vines, sown seed; he had worked, this man, passionately, furiously. l hen, month by month, year by year, increasing his demesne, continually fertilising the lusty and virgin soil, he had in this way amassed a fortune by his unsparing labour.

    Yet he went on working, all the time, people said. Up at dawn, going over his fields until night, always on the watch, he seemed to be goaded by a fixed idea, tortured by an insatiable lust for money, which nothing lulls to sleep, and nothing can appease.

    Now he seemed to be very rich.

    The sun was just setting when I reached his dwelling. This was, indeed, built at the end of an out-thrust cliff, in the midst of orange-trees. It was a large plain-looking house, built four-square, and overlooking the sea.

    As I approached, a man with a big beard appeared in the door way. Greeting him, I asked him to give me shelter for the night. He held out his hand to me, smiling.

    "Come in, sir, and make yourself at home."

    He led the way to a room, put a servant at my disposal, with the perfect assurance and easy good manners of a man of the world; then he left me, saying:

    "We will dine as soon as you are quite ready to come down."

    We did indeed dine alone, on a terrace facing the sea. At the beginning of the meal, I spoke to him of this country, so rich, so far from the world, so little known. He smiled, answering indifferently.

    "Yes, it is a beautiful country. But no country is attractive that lies so far from the country of one's heart."

    "You regret France?"

    "I regret Paris."

    "Why not go back to it?"

    "Oh, I shall go back to it."

    Then, quite naturally, we began to talk of French society, of the boulevards, and people, and things of Paris. He questioned me after the manner of a man who knew all about it, mentioning names, all the names familiar on the Vaudeville promenade.

    "Who goes to Tortoni's now?"

    "All the same people, except those who have died."

    I looked at him closely, haunted by a vague memory. Assuredly I had seen this face somewhere. But where? but when? He seemed weary though active, melancholy though determined. His big fair beard fell to his chest, and now and then he took hold of it below the chin and, holding it in his closed hand, let the whole length of it run through his fingers. A little bald, he had heavy eyebrows and a thick moustache that merged into the hair covering his cheeks. Behind us the sun sank in the sea, flinging over the coast a fiery haze. The orange-trees in full blossom filled the air with their sweet, heady scent. He had eyes for nothing but me, and with his intent gaze he seemed to peer through my eyes, to see in the depths of my thoughts the far-off, familiar, and well-loved vision of the wide, shady pavement that runs from the Madeleine to the Rue Drouot.

    "Do you know Boutrelle?"

    "Yes, well."

    "Is he much changed?"

    "Yes, he has gone quite white."

    "And La Ridamie?"

    "Always the same."

    "And the women? Tell me about the woman. Let me see, Do you know Suzanne Verner?"

    "Yes, very stout. Done for."

    "Ah! And Sophie Astier?"

    "Dead."

    "Poor girl! And is . . . do you know. . . ."

    But he was abruptly silent. Then in a changed voice, his face grown suddenly pale, he went on:

    "No, it would be better for me not to speak of it any more, it tortures me."

    Then, as if to change the trend of his thoughts, he rose.

    "Shall we go in?"

    "I am quite ready."

    And he preceded me into the house.

    The rooms on the ground floor were enormous, bare, gloomy, apparently deserted. Napkins and glasses were scattered about the tables, left there by the swan-skinned servants who prowled about this vast dwelling all the time. Two guns were hanging from two nails on the wall, and in the corners I saw spades, fishing-lines, dried palm leaves, objects of all kinds, deposited there by people who happened to come into the house, and remaining there within easy reach until someone happened to go out or until they were wanted for a job of work.

    My host smiled.

    "It is the dwelling, or rather the hovel; of an exile," said he, "but my room is rather more decent. Let's go there."

    My first thought, when I entered the room, was that I was penetrating into a second-hand dealer's, so full of things was it, all the incongruous, strange, and varied things that one feels must be mementoes. On the walls two excellent pictures by well-known artists, hangings, weapons, swords and pistols, and then, right in the middle of the most prominent panel, a square of white satin in a gold frame.

    Surprised, I went closer to look at it and I saw a hairpin stuck in the centre of the gleaming material.

    My host laid his hand on my shoulder.

    "There," he said, with a smile, "is the only thing I ever look at in this place, and the only one I have seen for ten years. Monsieur Prudhomme declared: 'This sabre is the finest day of my life!' As for me, I can say: 'This pin is the whole of my life!'"

    I sought for the conventional phrase; I ended by saying:

    "Some woman has made you suffer?"

    He went on harshly:

    "I suffer yet, and frightfully. . . . But come on to my balcony. A name came to my lips just now, that I dared not utter, because if you had answered 'dead,' as you did for Sophie Astier, I should have blown out my brains, this very day."

    We had gone out on to a wide balcony looking towards two deep valleys, one on the right and the other on the left, shut in by high sombre mountains. It was that twilight hour when the vanished sun lights the earth only by its reflection in the sky.

    He continued:

    "Is Jeanne de Limours still alive?"

    His eye was fixed on mine, full of shuddering terror.

    I smiled.

    "Very much alive . . . and prettier than ever."

    "You know her?"

    "Yes."

    He hesitated:

    "Intimately?"

    "No."

    He took my hand:

    "Talk to me about her."

    "But there is nothing I can say: she is one of the women, or rather one of the most charming and expensive gay ladies in Paris. She leads a pleasant and sumptuous life, and that's all one can say."

    He murmured: "I love her," as if he had said: "I am dying." Then abruptly:

    "Ah, for three years, what a distracting and glorious life we lived! Five or six times I all but killed her; she tried to pierce my eyes with that pin at which you have been looking. There, look at this little white speck on my left eye. We loved each other! How can I explain such a passion? You would not understand it.

    "There must be a gentle love, born of the swift mutual union of two hearts and two souls; but assuredly there exists a savage love, cruelly tormenting, born of the imperious force which binds together two discordant beings who adore while they hate.

    "That girl ruined me in three years. I had four millions which she devoured quite placidly, in her indifferent fashion, crunching them up with a sweet smile that seemed to die from her eyes on to her lips.

    "You know her? There is something irresistible about her. What is it? I don't know. Is it those grey eyes whose glance thrusts like a gimlet and remains in you like the barb of an arrow? It is rather that sweet smile, indifferent and infinitely charming, that dwells on her face like a mask. Little by little her slow grace invades one, rises from her like a perfume, from her tall, slender body, which sways a little as she moves, for she seems to glide rather than walk, from her lovely, drawling voice that seems the music of her smile, from the very motion of her body, too, a motion that is always restrained, always just right, taking the eye with rapture, so exquisitely proportioned it is. For three years I was conscious of no one but her. How I suffered! For she deceived me with every one. Why? For no reason, for the mere sake of deceiving. And when I discovered it, when I abused her as a light-o'-love and a loose woman, she admitted it calmly. 'We're not married, are we?' she said.

    "Since I have been here, I have thought of her so much that I have ended by understanding her: that woman is Manon Lescaut come again. Manon could not love without betraying for Manon, love, pleasure, and money were all one."

    He was silent. Then, some minutes later:

    "When I had squandered my last sou for her, she said to me quite simply: 'You realise, my dear, that I cannot live on air and sunshine. I love you madly, I love you more than anyone in the world, but one must live. Poverty and I would never make good bedfellows.'

    "And if I did but tell you what an agonising life I had lead with her! When I looked at her, I wanted to kill her as sharply as I wanted to embrace her. When I looked at her . . . I felt a mad impulse to open my arms, to take her to me and strangle her. There lurked in her, behind her eyes, something treacherous and for ever unattainable that made me execrate her; and it is perhaps because of that that I loved her so. In her, the Feminine, the detestable and distracting Feminine, was more puissant than in any other woman. She was charged with it, surcharged as with an intoxicating and venomous fluid. She was Woman, more essentially than any one woman has ever been.

    "And look you, when I went out with her, she fixed her glance on every man, in such a way that she seemed to be giving each one of them her undivided interest. That maddened me and yet held me to her the closer. This woman, in the mere act of walking down the street, was owned by every man in it, in spite of me, in spite of herself, by virtue of her very nature, although she bore herself with a quiet and modest air. Do you understand?

    "And what torture! At the theatre, in the restaurant, it seemed to me that men possessed her under my very eyes. And as soon as I left her company, other men did indeed possess her.

    "It is ten years since I have seen her, and I love her more then ever."

    Night had spread its wings upon the earth. The powerful scent of orange-trees hung in the air.

    I said to him:

    "You will see her again?"

    He answered:

    "By God, yes. I have here, in land and money, from seven to eight hundred thousand francs. When the million is complete, I shall sell all and depart. I shall have enough for one year with her——one entire marvellous year. And then goodbye, my life will be over."

    I asked:

    "But afterwards?"

    "Afterwards, I don't know. It will be the end. Perhaps I shall ask her to keep me on as her body-servant."

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