Lelia descended the mountains and, with a little gold dispensed en route, she rapidly crossed the valley borders. A few days after having slept on the heath of Monteverdor, she was living in queenlike luxury in one of those beautiful towns of the lower plateau which compete in opulence, where the arts originated and still flourish.
Like Trenmor, who had restored and strengthened himself in prison, Lelia hoped to be reborn through her courage in the midst of this world she detested and these joys that horrified her. She resolved to overcome herself, to dominate the revolts of her wild spirit, to throw herself into the current of life, to shrink within herself for a time, to numb herself so as to see at close range the cesspool of society and to become reconciled with herself in comparison.
Lelia had no sympathy for the human race, although she suffered from the same weaknesses. But this blind, deaf race did not want to be aware of its unhappiness and degradation. Some people bid the wounds of their hearts and the exhaustion of their blood beneath a burst of useless poetry. They blushed to see themselves so old, so poor, in the midst of a generation they did not realize was pierced everywhere by old age and poverty. To make themselves look as young as they believed others to be, they lied, they hid the nakedness of their ideas beneath layers of rouge, and they denied their feelings. They were innocent, simpleminded braggarts who had been dotards ever since they left their mothers' breasts! Others, less brazen than their forebears, let themselves be carried by the current of the century. Slowly and weakly they went the way of the world without knowing why. By nature they were too mediocre to be very upset about their disquietude. Petty and feeble, they drooped in resignation. They didn't ask themselves if they could find help either through virtue or through vice. They were equally beneath both. Faithless, without atheism, enlightened just enough to lose the benefits of ignorance, ignorant enough to want to submit everything to narrowly rigorous systems, they could establish what occurrences bad composed the material history of the world, but they never wanted to study the moral world or read history in man's heart. They bad been stopped by the imbecilic inflexibility of their prejudices. These were the men of the day who reasoned about past and future centuries without perceiving that their genius had all issued from the same mold and that, assembled all together, they would still have been able to seat themselves on the benches of the same school and follow the law of the same pedant.
A few, who represented a social force, however, had survived the poisoned atmosphere of the times without losing the primitive vigor of the species. These were exceptional men. But among themselves they all resembled one another. Ambition, the last remaining impetus of an epoch without belief, annihilated their distinctive, male nobility to merge them all into a type of beauty that was coarse and without prestige. They were still steel men of the Middle Ages. They had the same fierce gaze, the strong thoughts, the robust muscles, the thirst for glory, and the taste for blood, as if each had been named Armagnac or Bourgogne. But the sap of heroism was lacking in these strong personalities. All that gives birth to heroism and nourishes it was lacking: love, fraternity in arms, hate, pride of family, fanaticism, all the personal passions that give intensity to character. There was no longer anything to motivate these courageous men except illusions of youth, which are destroyed in two mornings, and virile, stubborn, filthy ambition, the daughter of civilization.
Blighted by the consciousness of her degradation, Lelia alone was aware enough to ascertain it, sincere enough to avow it to herself. Lelia weeping for her burnt-out passions and her lost powers, made her way through the world without seeking pity or finding affection. She knew very well that these people, in spite of their frantic, wretched agitation, were no more alive than she. But she knew too that they had the effrotery to deny this or the stupidity not to know it. She watched the agony of these people just as the prophet, seated on the mountain, wept over Jerusalem, that opulent, aged debauchee stretched out at his feet.
She came there seeking entertainment. These
vast moving tableaux, arranged more or less with taste and skill
within the frame of a ball were for her objects of art to examine.
She did not understand that in a poor, cold climate where narrow,
ungracious dwellings cram men together like bundles of merchandise
in a warehouse one boasts of knowing luxury and elegance. She
simply thought that in such nations a feeling for the arts was
alien. She had pity for what are called balls in those sad, crowded
rooms where the ceiling crushes women's coiffures and where,
to spare their naked shoulders from the night cold, they replace
fresh air with a feverish, suffocating, corrosive atmosphere.
At those balls one makes a show of moving and dancing in a narrow
space marked off by double rows of seated spectators who, with
great difficulty, save their feet from the attacks of the waltz
and their clothing from the candles.
Indeed, nothing is further from realizing the pretension of the beautiful than an ill-arranged ball. So many things difficult to assemble are necessary that during an entire century perhaps only two are given that can satisfy the artist. There must be the right climate, locale, decoration ' food, and costumes. It must be a Spanish or Italian night, dark and moonless, because the moon, when it reigns in the sky, throws an influence of languor and melancholy over men that is reflected in all their sensations. It must be a fresh, airy night with stars shining feebly through the clouds. There must be large gardens whose intoxicating perfume penetrates the rooms in waves. The fragrance of orange trees and of the Constantinople rose are especially apt to develop exaltation of heart and mind. There must be light food, delicate wines, fruit of all climates, and flowers of all seasons. There must be a profusion of things rare and difficult to possess, because a ball should be a realization of the most voracious imaginations and the most capricious desires. One must understand one thing before giving a ball: rich, civilized human beings find pleasure only in the hope of the impossible. So one must approach the impossible as closely as one can.
The Prince of Bambuccj was a man of taste, which is the rarest and most superior quality for a rich man to possess. The only virtue one demands of such people is that they know bow to spend their money suitably. On this condition one relieves them from the necessity of any other merit. But usually they are beneath their vocation, and they live in a bourgeois fashion without giving up the pride of their class.
Bambucci was the first man in the world
to pay for a horse, a woman, or a painting without bargaining
and without letting himself be cheated. He knew the price of
things almost to a scudo. His eye was as sharp as an official
auctioneer's or a slave merchant's. His olfactory sense was so
developed that he could tell simply from the bouquet of a wine
not only the degree of latitude and the name of the vineyard,
but how the slope of the hill which had produced it faced the
The last ball that he gave contributed not a little to his reputation. Large alabaster vases placed in the rooms, the stairways, and the corridors of his palace were filled with exotic flowers whose name, form, and perfume were unknown to most who saw them. He bad carefully distributed twenty savants throughout the ball. These men were charged with serving as ciceroni to the ignorant and explaining to them, without affectation, the use and the price of the things they were admiring. The front of the villa and the courtyard sparkled with lights. But the gardens were lit only by reflection from the inner rooms. As one drew farther away, one could bury oneself in a soft, mysterious darkness and rest from the movement and noise in the depths of these shadows. The orchestra would sound sweetly and faintly here, interrupted often by gusts of a breeze scented with perfumes. Green velvet carpets had been thrown as if forgotten on the grass, so that one could sit there without crumpling one's clothing. And in some places bells of a clear, feeble timbre were suspended in the trees and, at the least movement of air, they strewed the leaves with uncertain notes or disconnected harmonies. One could have taken these notes for the frail voices of sylphs awakened by the swaying of the flowers in which they were hidden.
Bambuccj knew how important it is to avoid everything that can fatigue the senses when one wishes to arouse voluptuousness in enervated souls. Consequently, inside the rooms the light was not too bright for delicate eyes. The harmony was sweet and without bursts of brass instruments. The dances were slow and occasional. Young people were not permitted to form numerous quadrilles. Because, in the conviction that man knows neither what he wants nor what suits him, the philosophic Bambuccj had stationed chamberlains everywhere who regulated each guest's dose of activity and repose. These men, skillful observers and profound skeptics, put a rein on the passion of some so that they would not exhaust themselves too quickly, rebuked the lethargy of others in order to arouse their activity. They could read in your expression the approach of satiety, and they found means to prevent this by making you change place and amusement. They could divine, too, in the nervousness of your walk, in the rapidity of your movements, the invasion or development of a passion. And if they foresaw some immediately scandalous result, they knew bow to prevent it, either by intoxicating you with wine or by Improvising some unofficial fable that disgusted you with your pursuits. But if they saw themselves in the presence of two actors experienced in intrigue, they spared no effort to engage and protect the relationships that could render pleasurable hours to well-matched couples.
And furthermore, nothing was more noble and candid than the affairs of the heart, which flourished there. As a man of refinement, Bambuccj had banished politics, gambling, and diplomacy from his parties. He found that to argue affairs of state, weave plots, ruin oneself, or conduct business in the midst of the pleasures of the ball was in the worst taste.
The joyous Bambuccj understood life too well for that. No complaints of the people and no murmur of underlings reached his ears when he was amusing himself, the good prince. All aggressive counsel, all thinkers who augured ill were banished from his entertainments. He wanted there only charming people, men of art, as they say today, stylish women, complaisant ones, many young people, a few ugly women to make the beautiful ones stand out, and just enough ridiculous guests to amuse the others.
Most of the guests were at the age where
they still have illusions, and most belonged to those middle
classes which have enough taste to applaud and not enough wealth
to disdain. They were the chorus in the opera, a part of the
spectacle as necessary as the decor and dinner. These good citizens
did not suspect it, but in Bambuccj's salons they played the
role of walk-ons. They bad in their capacity as actors the profits
of the ball, that is to say, pleasure; but they did not have
honor. Honor was reserved for a small group of chosen epicureans
whom the prince wanted to dazzle and charm. These were his true
guests, judges, and friends. But the noisy, dressed-up crowd
which passed beneath their
These people of distinction were, for the most part, fitted to rival il padron della casa in wealth and taste. Bambuccj was well aware that be was not dealing with children. He held it a supreme honor to surpass them in inventions and delicacies of all kinds. If he had been served with dishes of vermilion by the Marquis della Pamocchie, Bambucci displayed plates of pure gold on his tables. If the Jew Zacchario Pandolfi had exhibited his wife crowned with diamonds, Bambuccj adorned his mistress with diamonds down to her evening slippers. If Duke Almari's pages wore clothing embroidered with gold, Bambuccj's footservants wore clothing embroidered with fine pearls. Worthy and touching emulation among enlightened sovereigns of intelligent nations!
One must not be mistaken. The task undertaken by the prince was not easy. It was a grave matter which he had reflected upon more than one night before attempting. First be needed to surpass all those rivals worthy of him in expenditure of money and spirit. Then be needed to succeed in intoxicating them so much with pleasure that, forgetting their pride wounded in defeat, they would have the good faith to admit it. Such an enterprise was no obstacle to Bambuccj's immense imagination, and be threw himself into it sure of victory. He was full of confidence in his resources and in the assistance of heaven, from whom be had asked nine days in advance, through the voice of his clergy, that rain not fall during this memorable night.
Among these eminences to whom the entire province was served as a repast, Lelia the stranger, occupied first rank. As she had a great deal of money, she always had a few distant "cousins" and a great deal of consideration wherever she found herself. Known for her beauty, her lavish spending, and the singularity of her character, she was the object of the most ingenious attentions of the prince and his favorites.
First she was introduced into one of those
dazzling salons which was only the beginning of the progressive
display reserved for her eyes. Bambuccj's agents were charged
with adroitly stopping the newly arrived here and holding their
interest for a suitable time. Now it happened that the young
Greek prince Paolaggi entered at the same time Lelia did. The
chamberlains could imagine nothing better than to put into each
other's presence these social personages, surrounded by
This Greek prince bad the most handsome profile that antique sculpture had ever reproduced. He was as bronze as Othello, for there was Moorish blood in his family, and his black eyes burned with a savage sparkle; he was as tall and slim as the Oriental palm. There was in him something of the cedar tree, of the Arabian horse, of the Bedouin, and of the gazelle. All the women were mad about him.
He graciously drew near Lelia and kissed her hand, although be was seeing her for the first time. This was a man who had manners peculiar to himself. The women pardoned his many originalities, in consideration for the heat of the Asiatic blood that ran in his veins.
He said little to her, but in a voice so harmonious, in such a poetic style, with such penetrating looks, and with such an inspired expression that Lelia paused for five minutes to observe him as a prodigy. Then she thought of something else.
When Count Ascanio entered, the chamberlains went to seek out Bambuccj. Ascanio was the happiest of men. Nothing shocked him, all the world loved him, he loved all the world. Lelia who knew the secret of his philanthropy, saw him only with horror. As soon as she perceived his presence, her face was filled with such a somber cloud that the terror-stricken chamberlains sought help from the patron himself to dissipate it.
"Is that what's troubling you?" Bambuccj asked the chamberlains in a low voice, throwing his eagle-eyed glance on Lelia. "Don't you see that the most agreeable of men is unbearable to the most melancholy of women? What would be Lelia's merit, genius, and grandeur if Ascanio succeeded in being right? If be could prove that everything is going well in the world, how would she pass her time? Clumsy men, you should know how fortunate it is for certain natures that the world is full of faults and vices. And hurry to rid Lelia of that charming Epicurean because be doesn't understand that it's better to kill Lelia than console her."
The chamberlains went to beg Ascanio to chase the melancholy that was spreading over Paolaggi's handsome brow. Ascanio, convinced that he was going to be useful, began to triumph. He was a good, ferocious man who lived only on the torture of others. He spent his life proving to them that they were happy so as not to give their lives significance. And when he had taken away from them the sweetness of believing themselves interesting, they bated him more than if be bad beheaded them.
Bambuccj offered his arm to Lelia and led her to the Egyptian salon. She admired its decor, politely criticized a few stylistic details, and ended by overwhelming the savant Bambuccj with joy when she declared that she had never seen anything better. At this moment Paolaggi, who had rid himself of Ascents, the happy man, reappeared close to Lelia He had put on a costume of ancient times. Leaning against a jasper sphinx, he was the most remarkable feature of the tableau, and Lelia could not observe him without feeling the same admiration that a beautiful statue or a beautiful place would have inspired in her.
As she naively divulged her impressions to Bambuccj, the latter swelled up like a father whose son has been praised. It was not that he had the slightest affection for the Greek prince, but the young prince was handsome, costumed as be was, to great effect in the Egyptian room. Bambuccj considered him as he would a precious piece of furniture he had rented for the evening.
Then be began to make the most of his Greek prince. However, in spite of the best established superiority, it is very difficult to preserve oneself from inadvertence in the tumult of festivities of which one has complete charge. He involuntarily looked at the statue of Osiris. Then two analogous ideas unhappily crossed in his mind. It was impossible for him to separate them.
"Yes," he said, "he is a handsome statue ... I mean to say that he is a distinguished man. He speaks Chinese as well as he does French, and French as well as Arabic. The cornelians in his ears are of inestimable worth, as well as the malachites incrusted on his feet ... and then be has a head of fire, a head on which the sun has let its devouring influence fall... It is a bead no one has copied and for which I paid a thousand crowns to one of those English thieves who explore Egypt. ... Have you read his poem to Delia and his sonnets to Zamora in the manner of Petrarch? ... I can't be sure that the body is absolutely identical, but the basalt is so similar, and the proportions match so well. . . ."
When Bambuccj perceived his imbroglio, he stopped short. But when be turned his bead fearfully to Lelia he gathered courage again as he saw that she wasn't listening and that she was moving rapidly off.