Title: Les Enfants Terribles.
Author: Jean Cocteau (translated by Rosamond Lehmann).
Genre: Fiction, literature, bildingsroman, mental health, suicide.
Publication Date: 1929.
Summary: Paul and Elisabeth sleep in the same room, and it is the room which is important: whatever they do and wherever they go – Elisabeth tending her "poor, sick mother" until she dies and then marrying, Paul worshipping a fellow student and then an unfortunate friend of his sister's who resembles him – the room contains them and the "Game" controls them. Isolated from the world, the siblings build themselves a private world out of the shared room and their own unbridled fantasies. But what starts as a competitive and cruel childhood game evolves over the years for Paul and Elisabeth into a drug too magical to resist. A
My rating: 9/10.
♥ Terrors they are, these lads, and no mistake – the terrors of the Fifth. A year from now, having become the Fourth, they will have shaken the dust of the rue d'Amsterdam from their shoes and swaggered into the rue Caumartin with their four books bound with a strap and a square of felt in lieu of a satchel.
But now they are in the Fifth, where the tenebrous instincts of childhood still predominate: animal, vegetable instincts, almost indefinable because they operate in regions below conscious memory, and vanish without trace, like some of childhood's griefs; and also because children stop talking when grown-ups draw nigh. They stop talking, they take on the aspect of beings of a different order of creation – conjuring themselves at will an instantaneous coat of bristles or assuming the bland passivity of some form of plant life. Their rites are obscure, inexorably secret; calling, we know, for infinite cunning, for ordeal by fear and torture; requiring victims, summary executions, human sacrifices. The particular mysteries are impenetrable, the faithful speak a cryptic tongue; even if we were to chance to overhear unseen, we would be none the wiser. Their trade is all in postage stamps and marbles. Their tribute goes to swell the pockets of the demigods and leaders; the mutter of conspiracy is shrouded in a deafening din. Should one of that tribe of prosperous, hermetically preserved artists happen to pull the cord that works those drapes across his window, I doubt if the spectacle thereby revealed to him would strike him as copy for any of his favourite subjects: nothing he could use to make a pretty picture with a title such as Little Black Sweeps at Play in a White World; or Hot Cockles; or Merry Wee Rascals.
♥ The Cité had withdrawn in Time; the snow seemed no longer to be impartially distributed over the whole warm living earth, but to be dropping, piling only upon this one isolated spot.
The hard muddy ground had already been smashed, churned up, crushed, stamped into slides by children in their way to school. The soiled snow made ruts along the gutter. But the snow had also become the snow on porches, steps, and house-fronts: featherweight packages, mats cornices, odds and ends of wadding, ethereal yet crystallized, seemed, instead of blurring the outlines of the stone, to quicken it, to imbue it with a kind of presage.
Gleaming with the soft effulgence of a luminous dial, the snow's incandescence, self-engendered, reached inward to probe the very soul of luxury and draw it forth through stone till it was visible, it was that fabric magically upholstering the Cité, shrinking it and transforming it into a phantom drawing-room.
♥ He was looking for Dargelos, whom he loved.
It was the worse for him because he was condemned to love without forewarning of love's nature. His sickness was unremitting and incurable – a state of desire, chaste, innocent of aim or name.
♥ Great a prerogatives of beauty, subduing even those not consciously aware of it.
♥ A child's reaction to this type of calamity is twofold and extreme. Not knowing how deeply, powerfully, life drops anchor into its vast sources of recuperation, he is bound to envisage, at once, the very worse; yet at the same time, because of his inability to imagine death, the worst remains totally unreal to him.
Gérard went on repeating: "Paul's' dying, Paul's going to die"; but he did not believe it. Paul's death would be part of the dream, a dream of snow, of journeying forever. For though he loved Paul as Paul loved Dargelos, it was by being weak, not strong, that Paul had subjugated him. Dargelos was the flame that drew Paul's tranced obsessive gaze; he, Gérard, who was strong and just, must therefore be Paul's guardian, must watch him surreptitiously, save him each time he seemed about to singe his wings. What a fool he'd been on the porch!... pretending not to notice that Paul was looking for Dargelos, telling himself he'd jolly well teach Paul a lesson... The same compulsion that had hurled the infatuated Paulk towards the fray had pinned, transfixed him, Gérard, to the spot. From afar he had seen Paul drop, lie bleeding, senseless, with something in his attitude... in the kind of attitude that seems to warn the frivolous spectator to keep his distance. Then, not daring to approach for fear Dargelos and his gang would keep him away from the authorities, he had taken to his heels and run for help.
But now once more the customary rhythm was reestablishing its sway; once more he was at his post, watching over Paul. Now he was bearing him away. He was soaring into a dream-world if transcendent ecstasy. The soundless wheels beneath him, the glitter of the street lamps, combined with his sense of dedication to weave a magic spell. Paul's weakness seemed to him to turn to stone, to acquire concrete and finite dimensions, and he felt that, in bearing it, he had found a cause worthy of his strength.
♥ Surely Paul would forget the incident. At all costs the true world of childhood must prevail, must be restored; that world whose momentous, heroic, mysterious quality is fed on airy nothings, whose substance is so ill-fitted to withstand the brutal touch of adult inquisition.
♥ It was then that Gérard hand in his own was warm, and understood that his ability to play the game stemmed from this link with living warmth.
The word "Game" was by no means accurate, but it was the term which Paul had selected to denote that state of semi-consciousness in which children float immersed. Of this Game he was past master. Lord of space and time, dweller in the twilit fringes between light and darkness, fisher in the confluent pools of truth and fantasy, he had built himself a kingdom in his classroom, sat at his desk enthroned while Dargelos bowed in homage, obedient to his will.
"Can he be playing the Game?" thought Gérard, clasping Paul's warm hand, staring intently at the face supine in its corner.
Without Paul's presence, this cab would have been nothing but a cab, the snow no more than snow, thew lamps were lamps, this return journey a humdrum routine affair. Too homespun by nature for any self-induced delirium, Gératrd was totally possessed by Paul, whose spell had finally pervaded his entire consciousness. Instead of learning grammar, sums, geography, natural history, he had been made free of such a sphere of sleep as wafts the waking dreamer past danger of recall, and restores to things their veritable meaning. The opium hidden in their desks – in the shapoe of pieces of chewed india-rubber, broken pen holders – provided these infant addicts with a drug as potent as any drowsy syrup of the East.
Could Paul be playing the Game?
♥ Hus fabulous journey was over, he was back now in the discomfiting climate of Elisabeth and Paul. She had shattered his dream of Paul in his pure weakness, stabbed him awake with reminders of his selfish whims. Paul in his relationship to Dargelos, Paul victim, overthrown, was not that Paul to whom he, Gérard, was in thrall.
There had been something of perversion, almost of necrophily, in the delicious pleasures of that journey with the unconscious youth: not that he envisaged it in such crude psychopathic terms. All the same he realized that Paul's swoon, the falling snow, had contributed to an illusion. Paul had been absent, dead. Only the ruddy glow cast by the flying fire engines had given him a counterfeit life. He understood Elisabeth – knew, of course, that her affection for him was simply an extension of her worship of her brother. Oh yes, he was their friend, had witnessed their transports of immoderate love, the stormy glances they exchanged, the clash of their conflicting fantasies and their malicious tongues. He lay back soberly in the cab and let his head roll to and fro and felt the draught cold on the back of his neck and set about reducing his world to commonsense proportions. But a rational approach had its disadvantages as well as its rewards. If on the one had it enabled him to discern a tender heart beneath her outward harshness, on the other it forced him to recognize Paul's seizure for what it was – a real, grown-up fainting-fit, suggesting dire possibilities.
♥ Elisabeth and Paul had inherited her pallor and her cast of countenance. Their heritage of instability, extravagant caprice, and natural elegance was their paternal portion.
♥ She had gone well away at least when she heard her name called. "Lise!"
It was the doctor, shocking her back into the world of grief.
♥ She did not thank him. She was accustomed to miracles and accepted them as part of daily life. She expected them to happen, and they always did.
♥ Paul wept and sobbed. Elisabeth was beginning to feel tired. She wanted to play the Game, to hypnotize him; she longed to comfort him; she would have liked to understand. But sleep was bearing down on her, sweeping her mind with broad dark beams like headlights across snow, obliterating all her efforts.
♥ Only Dargelos could have persuaded Paul back to school. With Dargelos cast forth, the Lycée Condorcet had become a prison.
For the rest, Dargelos's prestige was beginning to undergo a subtle change of scale. Far from dwindling, his figure was expanding, beginning to take off into the upper reaches of the Room. Those sunken eyes, those lips, so coarse, that lock of hair, those clumsy hands, those knees and all their scars, were becoming separate stars of one great constellation, spinning, turning, in interstellar vacancy. In short, Dargelos had gone into the treasure to rejoin his photograph. Image and original were identified; the prototype had lost his function.
♥ As for the Room, the efforts of the nurses proved unavailing to subdue it. On the contrary, the wilderness spread rapidly, and before long the patient had succeeded in imposing his personal town and landscape upon chaos. Streets wound in and out among the litter, trunks flanked his broad avenues, strewn papers were his lakes, piles of discarded linen were his mountains. All these Elisabeth with a murmur of "Laundress... waiting..." would pounce on and demolish, rejoicing in the havoc she created, the atmosphere of perpetually impending storm which was the breath of life to both of them.
♥ She had been surprised by death, perpetuated in such a pose as death alone conceives of: hands clenched, arms rigid among the chair-arms. The doctor had foreseen that the end would come without warning; but the children, alone, transfixed by this sudden counterfeit, this puppet in place of a live person, this stranger with the mask of a sculptured sage, gazed on it livid, stone-still before its petrified stare, its cry of stone.
..Far from bequeathing them a distressful legacy, their mother did much, by her fabulous death, to raise her credit in her children's estimation. It was as if a thunderbolt had forged an image of her, acceptably macabre, entirely unrelated to the person whom they missed. Moreover, in matters of bereavement, creatures so primitive, so uncorrupted, are unaware of social usage. Their reactions are animal, instinctive; and orphaned animals are notoriously cynical in their approach to death. The vanished mother is not mourned for long – once gone, never to return, from her accustomed place, her absence is accepted. And yet, by virtue of her one last freakish stroke, she was to manage, after all, to impress herself upon the memory of her children. Besides, the Room craved marvels. This death of hers, indubitably a marvel, made her a sarcophagus, a Gothic monument, enshrined her in the Room; was duly to translate her into the eternity of dreams, into their magic heaven, with pride of place.
♥ She was an unlettered peasant, whose inmost heart was given to a grandson in her native Brittany. Thus, love had taught her to decipher the mysteries of childhood.
The average upright citizen would have found Paul and Elisabeth preposterous; would doubtless have invoked their tainted heredity – one aunt insane, an alcoholic father – to help explain them. Preposterous they were, indeed; so is a rose, so are the solemn arguments of average upright citizens. But in her perfect simplicity Mariette grasped the inapprehensible. The climate of innocence was one in which she felt herself at home. She had no wish to analyse it. She discerned in the Room a transparency of atmosphere too pure; too vital to harbour any germ of what was base or vile; a spiritual altitude beyond contamination. She sheltered them beneath her wing with an instinctive maternal response to the demands of genius, and with an artless wisdom that enabled her to respect, as if by divination, the creative genius at work within the room. For it was indubitably a masterpiece these children were creating; a masterpiece devoid of intellectual content, devoid – this was the miracle – of any worldly aim; the masterpiece of their own being.
♥ The doctor congratulated Elisabeth upon a transformation which seemed to him miraculous, no less.
And she continued to sustain it; gradually, stubbornly, to make a substance of her seeming. For nothing in our hero and our heroine was conscious; no notion crossed them, even faintly, of the external impression they produced. They lived their dream, their Room, fancying they loathed what they adored.
♥ Strictly speaking, it had been the house in the rue Montmartre, it had been Paul and Elisabeth that he had adored in Paul. But now, inevitably, the spotlight had swung away from Paul to illumine a figure putting off childhood and slipping into her young girlhood, leaving the time of boys' derision for the time of boys' desire.
♥ He started to go soft. She had guessed right. Nothing escaped her; she pounced on every symptom. Loathing everything that smacked of petty indulgences, lip-lickings, fireside cosiness, herself all fire and ice, she could not tolerate a lukewarm diet. As in the epistle to the angel of Laodicea: She spewed it forth from her mouth. Thoroughbred she was, and Paul too much be a thoroughbred.
On rushed the train, its human freight asleep beneath a flying tent of vapours rent intermittently by piercing screams; but on this first real journey of her life, deaf to the beat beat of the turning wheels, to the demented shrieking of the engine, blind to the smoke's wild mane that flew above them, she sat, this girl, intent upon her brother, searching his face with avid eyes.
..As far as Elisabeth was concerned, this behaviour, as irresponsible as that of untrained children, naïvely cheeky to the point of crime, this inability to distinguish good from evil, this playing at pirates, stemmed from her instinct to save Paul from the flabbiness she dreaded in him. As long as she could keep him harried, scared stiff, grimacing, cursing, tearing up and down, he could not sink into inertia. We shall see where intuition led her before she had done with him and his reeducation.
♥ It was then that the Room, like a great ship, put out to sea. Higher the waves, wilder the horizons, rarer, more perilous, the cargo.
In their strange world of childhood, of action in inaction, as in the waking dream of opium eaters, to stay becalmed could be as dangerous as to advance at breakneck speed.
..For since their return he had had the upper hand. What she had feared when she had first seen him rise form his bed of sickness, half a head taller than herself, had come to pass: he was no longer content to play the invalid. Her recent efforts to promote his moral welfare were paying dividends far beyond her calculations. ..It was no use, she knew her nursling was a child no longer. He had outstripped her in the race by almost a clear length. The very Room proclaimed it, seeming now to be constructed on two different levels. He was on the top floor, with all his magic properties within effortless reach; but she was consigned to the basement, obliged to dive or grovel ignominiously when she wanted to find hers.
♥ Paul flung his clothes off, Gérard put on his dressing-gown and was assisted into bed. The genius of the room knocked thrice. The play began. But not one of the protagonists, it must be remembered, not even he who played the sole spectator, was consciously concerned with make-believe. In their archaic unawareness their play became the legend of eternal youth. Without their knowing it, the play – the Room – swung on the edge of myth.
♥ It was less a preparation for sleep an an embalming; in funeral bands, his food and drink and sacred bric-à-brac beside him, he set forth on his journey to the shadows.
♥ Sleep was stealing over him. Crayfish had become a matter of indifference. Already he had weighed anchor. He had slipped the cable, cast overboard the ballast of his waking appetites; bound hand and foot, was launched upon the Stygian tide.
..Alack for him his head lay heavy on the tide of sleep, his swollen eyelids were fast sealed, his lips were drawing breath now in another air than man's.
♥ Beyond the boundaries of the ordinary world of lives and houses, unguessed, undreamed of in their commonsense philosophy, lies the vast realm of the improbable: a world too disordered, so it would seem, to hold together for a fortnight, let alone for several years. And yet these lives, these houses continue to maintain a precarious equilibrium in defiance of all laws of man and nature. All the same, persons who base their calculations on the inexorable pressure of the force of circumstance assume, correctly, that such lives are doomed.
The world owes its enchantment to these curious creatures and their fancies; but its multiple complicity rejects them. Thistledown spirits, tragic, heartrending in their evanescence, they must go blowing headlong to perdition. And yet, all started harmlessly, in childish games and laughter...
♥ They had no inkling, this orphaned penniless pair, that they were outlaws, living on borrowed time, beyond the battle, on fate's capricious bounty. It seemed to them no more than natural that Gérard's uncle and the doctor should continue to provide for them.
♥ A warm affection – for Elisabeth a hitherto unknown emotion – grew up gradually between the two motherless girls, uniting them in a friendship that was to prove fatal to them both.
♥ In truth, there were buried levels of his spirit which Paul preferred to leave untouched. The mine was rich and deep, loaded with unimaginable treasure: he was afraid of his own clumsiness. Delicious was not a term applicable to anything below the crust of that volcano, whose heady vapours numbed his ravished senses.
♥ Mariette could get the spare room ready – "Mummy's room", the room of standing alone, of remembering, of waiting to be swallowed up in darkness.
♥ The aura of family likeness in the Room was an indubitable fact; although, had it been pointed out to Paul, he would have been astonished. His pursuit of one physical type was quite unconscious. And yet his fascination with it and the fascination he himself unwittingly exerted on his sister drove two straight lines through the disorder of their lives, lines destined to meet as inexorably as in a theorem by Euclid; like those two lines which, starting inimically at the base, converging, form the apex of the classic Grecian pediment.
♥ Agatha embraced her role with sacrificial ardour, feeling that the Room contained a force of love so potent that though it must intermittently explode, it could not damage her. It set her tingling violently as from electric shock, violent, yet it was positive in its effect, life-giving as the salt wind blowing from the sea.
Her parents, drug-addicts, had maltreated her, and ended by putting their heads in a gas oven. She had been rescued by the manager of an important fashion house, who happened to live in the same block of flats. He introduced her to the head of his firm, who took her on as an apprentice and subsequently as a mannequin. Acquainted as she was with the clenched fist, with malice and abuse, she recognized these portents in the Room, but with a difference. Here they evoked the battering wave, the stinging wind, the bolt that falls at random and in pure wantonness may strip the shepherd.
The contrast was a basic one, but all the same her experience of drug-addicts had conditioned her to the seamy side of life, to threatening voices, footsteps, broken furniture, cold snacks in the middle of the night. Behaviour normally calculated to raise a maiden blush failed to dismay her. The harsh school from which she had emerged had left its mark on her. Something savage lurked around her eyes and nostrils, recalling Dargelos at first sight, his mask of scorn.
She had ascended into the Room as if into the heaven of her hell. She could live at last, she could draw breath. Nothing worried her; she had no fear that her new friends might take to drugs; their addiction was, she knew, a natural and self-engendered one, and any external stimulus would have been redundant.
But now and then a kind of delirium seemed to take possession of them. The Room waxed feverish with images reflected in distorting mirrors. Then a dark shadow fell across her; she would ask herself if this mysterious elixir they imbibed was none the less as noxious, habit-forming, as likely as any other drug to lead to the gas oven. Then some shift of ballast, some steadying of the keel would come to reassure her and dispel her doubts.
But she had divined the truth, the workings in them of the wondrous substance. The drug was in their bloodstream.
♥ To look within requires self-discipline, and this they lacked. Primeval darkness, ghosts of feeling, were all that they encountered.
♥ But brawling leads to laryngitis. The wordy battles petered out, then ceased, and once again the warriors found harsh reality impinging on their dream, disturbing childhood's vegetative existence and scattering all its harmless toys.
♥ And the Room went on, and the wedding preparations were afoot, and still the hair's-breadth balance was maintained: the clown's act, in the interval, the sickening ever-mounting pile of chairs, the clown ascending, step by giddy step.
Nausea, giddiness, satiety of spirit now, sharper to the palate than the old physical satiety of childhood barley-sugar orgies – a glutton's diet of sensation, a cloying hotch-potch of misrule, disorder.
♥ Michael had rebuilt the house; but the problem of reconciling this cul-de-sac, which seemed to lurk at the end of every turning, with the rest of the design had continued to defeat him. Such failures, however, were his human opportunity; they marked the point where mechanical efficiency yielded to life itself. Here, in this dead-end alley, in a scarcely breathing structure, before the unmitigable onslaught of lifeless stone and metal, Life stood at bay. Here she had fled for sanctuary, crouching in this enormous niche like a banished and distraught princess outwitting her pursuers.
..As for the fellow-countrymen, who would have found nothing to impress them, they had as little inkling as poor Michael how American it was in essence.
Better than luxurious marble fittings and ornamental ironwork, it evoked New York – the New York of freak religions, theosophy, Christian Science, the Klu-Klux-Klan; of crazy endowments and eccentric heiresses, of morticians, spiritualist seances, the occult world of Edgar Allan Poe.
It suggested also some sort of waiting-room in a mental hospital; or the stage set for the materialization of departed spirits reporting their demise. The room was not without a hint, besides, of the Jewish-baronial taste for the flamboyant – for that sort of Gothic penthouse chapel, forty storeys up, whose lady inmates pace up and down the nave, burnish wax tapers, and play upon the organ. For there is a greater demand for tapers in New York than in Lourdes, or Rome itself, or for that matter any holy city in the world.
This gallery designed for frightened children who, waking, listen to the creaking dark, who dare not traverse certain corridors, this monstrosity, this limber room was Michael's sweetness, his vein of poetry, his Achilles' heel; betraying some quality endemic to his nature, something innate, not borrowed from the children, that was to make him worthy of them both. His fitness, had they known it, for election to the Room, his marriage and his tragic fate, were here prophetically made manifest. Here lay the answer to what had seemed so baffling; Elisabeth had chosen him, not for his fortune or hid animal spirits or his well-cut suits; not even for his sex appeal; it was for his death that she had chosen him.
♥ He was perturbed. His pride was injured. His vengeance upon Dargelos in the guise of a young girl had been a hopeless flop. He was in thrall to Agatha. And instead of realizing that he loved her, that it was her gentle nature that subdued him, that he should surrender, he reared and plunged in a fierce struggle to shake off this incubus, for so he saw her, avert this evil doom.
..One night, when she had gone out for a drive with Gérard and Agatha, leaving Paul locked in his self-chosen dungeon, he stumbled suddenly upon the truth: he was in love.
His head in a whirl, he had been staring at the photograph, that counterfeit of Agatha, when the discovery felled him like a thunderbolt. The scales dropped from his eyes. He was like one who, after prolonged poring over a monogram, suddenly sees letters stand out clearly in what had formerly seemed mere tracery devoid of meaning.
The screens were hung with all his old trophies from the rue Montmartre, after the manner of an actor's dressing-room. Instantly, like a Chinese swamp studded with lotus exploding amorously into flower at dawn, the screens unfolded all their many faces. Emerging from multiplicity – here through a gangster's features, there through an actress's – the prototype took shape. First glimpsed in Dargelos, pursued through the murk and glimmer of the casual streets, focused on the brittle screens, it crystallized at last in Agatha. How many tentative designs, how many rough sketches for the face of love before the final portrait! He had imagined himself in thrall to an accidental likeness between a schoolboy and a girl; but now he knew with what deliberation Fate first picks its weapon, then lifts it, aims it, finds the heart.
And this time there had been no question of Paul's secret predilection for one certain type: fate and fate alone had selected Agatha out of the whole world of girls, to be Elisabeth's companion. Who knows? – it may have been in that grim kitchen, by the lethal gas stove, that the knot had first been tied.
Paul marvelled at the fact of their encounter; but his sudden clairvoyance was confined to one sole area, that of love. Otherwise a greater marvel might have felled him utterly: namely, Fate the lacemaker implacably at work, holding upon her knees the cushions of our lives, and stuffing it with pins.
♥ Elisabeth went down one flight of stairs. She was wearing a bathrobe fastened round the waist by a necktie. It was too long and got in her way. But she was walking, not of her own volition, but as if mechanically controlled, impelled to turn left, turn right, to open doors and close them with precision, without getting the hem of her bathrobe caught in her moving sandals. She felt she had become a robot, wound up to go through certain gestures; unless it went on going through its paces it would fall to pieces. Her heart thudded, heavy, dull, against her ribs, like an axe falling upon wood; there was a singing in her ears; her brain gave back no echo of her brisk forward march. Dreams resound sometimes with footsteps, mindless, purposeful, like hers; dreams lend us a gait lighter than winged flight, a step able to combine the statue's weight of inorganic marble with the subaqueous freedom of a deep-sea diver.
Hollow, leaden, buoyant, Elisabeth advanced along the corridor, her white wrap, billowing round her ankles, seeming to float her onward like a cloud: one of those foamy cloud-cushions devised by primitive painters to bear some Being of the angelic order. Only a faint humming persisted in her head; and in her breast nothing any more but an axe thudding out its mortal strokes.
From this time onward she was never to look back. The genius of the Room informed her utterly. She was possessed by it, as men of action – sea-captains, say, or financiers – in moments of supreme emergency may suddenly become possessed, and know by inspiration what act, what word, what gesture will save their ships and fortunes from the rocks; or as a criminal, in a blinding flash of intuition, lights on the one, the foolproof alibi certain to save him from the gallows.
♥ Elisabeth dried Paul's tears, kissed him, tucked him up, and left him in his fortress. There was work to be done. The killer's instinct told her to strike blow on blow and never stop to think. Night-spinning spider, dexterous, deliberate, she went on her way, drawing her thread relentlessly behind her, hanging it to the four corners of the night.
♥ Murderers have been known to find that young girls give them more trouble than anybody else.
Through Agatha reeled beneath the blows, she would not break.
♥ She stood long before the mirror in her bathroom. The image fascinated her. She bent her head; she washed her terrifying hands.
♥ There was no one of them she did not trust. Could it ever have occurred to them to compare notes, they might have found reason to suspect her of malevolence, and forced her to a showdown; but they were too well bred for that. Malevolent? But why? Why should she want to harm them? She was encouraged to find she could produce no answers. She loved them all, poor dears. They were her lifework, her vocation. She had fathered them beneath her wing, sheltered them, shouldered the entire burden of their follies, managed to avert the certain Nemesis that would have overtaken them. She had paid, must pay, in blood and tears. It had to be.
♥ The meal would be swallowed to the accompaniment of brittle chatter, under the watchful eye of Mariette – the melancholy eye of a shrewd Breton; a peasant's eye for the shape of grief to come.
♥ "Glorious stuff, poison! I was always dying to get hold of some when I was at school." (It would have been more accurate to say that Dargelos was obsessed by poisons and that he, Paul, had copied Dargelos.)
"What could be the point??" asked Agatha.
"No point at all," said Paul. "Because I wanted it, I wanted to have some poison. It's glorious. I'd like to have it in the same way as I'd like to have a basilisk or a mandrake, in the same way that I like having a revolver. You've got it, you know you've got it, it's there for you to look at. It's poison. Glorious!"
♥ Its hidden promise filled the brother and sister with a strange elation. The room had become richer by an extra, an incalculable dimension. It had acquired the potentials of an anarchist conspiracy; as if a charge of human dynamite had been sunk in it, would be touched off at the appointed hour, explode in blood sublimely, stream in the incandescence firmament of love.
Moreover, Paul was revelling in this parade of eccentricity from which Gérard, according to Elisabeth, wished to protect Agatha; it was a smack at Gérard and also at his wife.
Elisabeth, for her part, was triumphant. She saw the old Paul back upon the war path, trampling down convention, grasping the nettle danger, jealous as ever of the sacred treasure.
She invested the poison with symbolic properties: it was the antidote to pettiness and parochialism; would, must – surely – lead to the final overthrow of Agatha.
But Paul failed to respond to cure by witchcraft. His appetite did not improve; listless, apathetic, he went on pining, wasting, sinking by slow stages into a decline.
♥ The actual tragedies of life bear no relation to one's preconceived ideas. In the event, one is always bewildered by their simplicity, their grandeur of design, and by that element of the bizarre, which seems inherent in them. What the girls found impossible, at first, was to suspend their natural disbelief. They had to admit, to accept the inadmissible, to recognize this unknown shape as Paul.
♥ This was more than death, it was the heart's death.
♥ "Filthy, filthy devil!"
Over and over again, with his dying breath, he spat it at her, raking her with his blue gaze, with a last long volley of fire from the blue slits between his eyelids. His lips, that had been so beautiful, twisted and twitched spasmodically; from the dried well of what had been his heart rose nothing but a tearless glitter, a wolfish phosphorescence.
♥ So this is what Agatha saw suddenly: a maniac in the act of disintegrating before her very eyes, standing before the mirror, mopping and mowing, drooling, squinting, tearing her hair out by the roots. For Elisabeth had given up: no longer able to bear this slackening in the pace of Nemesis, she was trying to resolve her inner tension by letting herself collapse, was struggling by means of this grotesque mime of imbecility to reduce life to its ultimate absurdity, to push back the frontiers of what might still have to be endured, to attain the moment when the drama would have done with her at last, wold spew her forth.
♥ She knew that the room was rushing head long down a giddy slope towards its end; but the end was not yet, and must be lived through: there must be no slackening of the tension. Snatches of the multiplication table went whirling through her head, odds and ends of figures, dates, street numbers: she added them all together, divided them, made nonsense of them, started all over again. Suddenly she remembered the origin of the mound: "mound" was the word for "hill" in Paul et Virginie. Their island.... Where could it have been? The Île de France? The names of islands began to float across her mind. Île de France, Mauritius; Île Saint Louis. She recited the names, ransposed them, shuffled them, annulled them, created void at last, achieved the vortex.
Paul felt the impact of her utter calm. He opened his eyes. She looked at him, encountered a remote yet swelling gaze, emptied of hatred now, beginning to deepen secretly with curiosity. She saw, and felt a premonitory surge of triumph, knew that the knot that bound them still held fast. Fixing her eyes unswervingly on his, spinning out the thread of trance towards him, adding and subtracting automatically, making lists of names and places, slowly she spread the net around him, surely she drew him backward into nothingness, back into the Game, into their world of light and air, their Room.
With the preternatural clairvoyance of fever, she penetrated into the most secret places. The shades obeyed her. What hitherto she had wrought mindlessly, building as bees build, no more aware of motive or direction than a patient in a deep hypnotic sleep, she now created and directed consciously. Like one who under sudden violent shock rises from long paralysis and walks, she moved, she took her bearings.
She was drawing Paul, and Paul was following her: no doubt of it. Certainty was the rock on which she based her unimaginable mental structure. She piped, she piped, she charmed him, he swayed to her tune. Already, she knew it, he no longer felt Agatha clinging round his neck; he had already become deaf to her laments. How should Elisabeth or Paul have heard her? Her cries are pitched far below the key they have selected for their requiem. Now they ascend, together they ascend. Elisabeth bears away her prey. They don the buskins of the Attic stage and leave the underworld of the Atrides behind them. Divine omniscience will not suffice to shrive them; they must put their trust in the divine caprice of the Immortals. Courage, one little moment longer and they will be where flesh dissolves, where souls embrace, where incest lurks no more.
Agatha's screams resounded from another time, another place. To Elisabeth and Paul they were of less significance than the majestic blizzard knocking on the windows. Dusk had retreated before the lamp's harsh glare; Elisabeth alone remained beyond its radius, within the shadow of its blood-red kerchief, cloaked in its purple, spinning the void, drawing Paul over the border from the realms of light into the realms of darkness.
He was sinking. He was ebbing out towards Elisabeth, towards the snow, the Game, the Room, their childhood. Still by a single thread of light the Maiden Goddess holds him out of darkness; his stone body is still penetrated by one last all-pervading thought of life. Still his eyes held his sister; but she was nothing more than a tall shape without identity, calling his name. For still, her finger on the trigger, like one clasped with here lover in the act of love, Elisabeth watched and waited on his pleasure, cried out to him to hasten to his mortal spasm, to accompany her into the final moment of mutual rapture and possession, mutual death.
Now he was spent, his head fell back. She thought the end had come, put the revolver to her temple, pulled the trigger. With a roaring din, one of the screens crashed on her as she fell. The walls were breached, the secret shrine exposed, raw, violated, a public spectacle, to the eyes watching Paul in the snow-shrouded windows.
He saw them looking down on him.
While Agatha stood dumb, transfixed with terror, staring at the bloodstained corpse that was Elisabeth, Paul saw them, splintered in the frosty panes, saw, thronging, pressing in, the snow-ballers, their noses, cheeks, red hands. He recognized their features, their capes, their woollen mufflers. He looked for Dargelos and could not find him; all he could see was that one vast gesture of Dargelos's lifted arm.
"Paul! Paul! Help! Help!"
But who is she to call upon his name? What part or lot has she in him? His eyes were quenched. The thread is broken. The Room has flown; all that remains is the foul breath of poison, and one small stranded figure, the figure of some woman, dwindling, fading, disappearing in the distance.