V. in love
The clock inside the Gare du Nord read 11:17:
By the cover of Le Soleil, the Orleanist morning paper, it was 24 July 1913. Louis Philippe Robert, due d'Orleans, was the current Pretender. Certain quarters of
Melanie l'Heuremaudit was driven away down the rue
Had fled from school in
Melanie's head ached, but she didn't care. Or did but not where she was, here present as a face and a ballerina's figure on the bouncing back seat of a taxi. The driver's neck was soft, white: wisps of white hair straggled from under the blue stocking cap. On reaching the intersection with the Boulevard Haussmann, the car turned right up rue de
"Papa!" she screamed.
The driver winced, tapped the brake reflexively. "I am not your father," he muttered.
Up into the heights of
Papa had a strong bald skull and a brave mustache. Evenings she would come softly into the room, the mysterious place walled in silk where he and her mother slept. And while Madeleine combed the hair of Maman in the other room, Melanie lay on the wide bed beside him, while he touched her in many places, and she squirmed and fought not to make a sound. It was their game. One night there had been heat lightning outside, and a small night bird had lit on the windowsill and watched them. How long ago it seemed! Late summer, like today.
This had been at Serre Chaude, their estate in
The taxi stopped in front of a cabaret in the rue Germaine Pilon, near Boulevard Clichy. Melanie paid the fare and was handed her bag from the top of the cab. She felt something which might be the beginning of the rain against her cheek. The cab drove away, she stood before Le Nerf in an empty street, the flowered bag without gaiety under the clouds.
"You believed us after all." M. Itague stood, half-stooping, holding the handle of the traveling bag. "Come, fetiche, inside. There's news."
On the small stage, which faced a dining room filled only with stacked tables and chairs, and lit by uncertain August daylight, came the confrontation with Satin.
"Mlle. Jarretiere"; using her stage name. He was short and heavily built: the hair stuck out in tufts from each side of his head. He wore tights and a dress shirt, and directed his eyes parallel to a line connecting her hip-points. The skirt was two years old, she was growing. She felt embarrassed.
"I have nowhere to stay," she murmured.
"Here," announced Itague, "there's a back room. Here, until we move."
"Move?" She gazed at the raving flesh of tropical blossoms decorating her bag.
"We have the Theatre de Vincent Castor," cried Satin. He spun, leaped, landed atop a small stepladder.
Itague grew excited, describing L'Enlevement des Vierges Chinoises - Rape of the Chinese Virgins. It was to be Satin's finest ballet, the greatest music of Vladimir Porcepic, everything formidable. Rehearsals began tomorrow, she'd saved the day, they would have waited until the last minute because it could only be Melanie,
She had wandered away, to the edge of stage right. Itague stood in the center, gesturing, declaiming: while enigmatic on the stepladder, stage left, perched Satin, humming a music-hall song.
A remarkable innovation would be the use of automata, to play Su Feng's handmaidens. "A German engineer is building them," said Itague. "They're lovely creatures: one will even unfasten your robes. Another will play a zither - although the music itself comes from the pit. But they move so gracefully! Not like machines at all."
Was she listening? Of course: part of her. She stood awkwardly on one leg, reached down and scratched her calf, hot under its black stocking. Satin watched hungrily. She felt the twin curls moving restless against her neck. What was he saying? Automata . . .
She gazed up at the sky, through one of the room's side windows. God, would it ever rain?
Her room was hot and airless. Asprawl in one corner was an artist's lay figure, without a head. Old theater posters were scattered on the floor and bed, tacked to the wall. She thought once she heard thunder rumbling from outside.
"Rehearsals will be here," Itague told her. "Two weeks before the performance we move into the Theatre de Vincent Castor, to get the feel of the boards." He used much theater talk. Not long ago he'd been a bartender near Place Pigalle.
Alone, she lay on the bed, wishing she could pray for rain. She was glad she couldn't see the sky. Perhaps certain of its tentacles already touched the roof of the cabaret. Someone rattled the door. She had thought to lock it. It was Satin she knew. Soon she heard the Russian and Itague leave together by the back door.
She may not have slept: her eyes opened to the same dim ceiling. A mirror hung on the ceiling directly over the bed. She hadn't noticed it before. Deliberately she moved her legs, leaving her arms limp at her sides, till the hem of the blue skirt had worked high above the tops of the stockings. And lay gazing at the black and tender white. Papa had said "How pretty your legs are: the legs of a dancer." She could not wait for the rain.
She rose, in a near-frenzy, removed blouse, skirt and undergarments and moved swiftly to the door, wearing only the black stockings and white buck tennis shoes. Somewhere on the way she managed to let down her hair. In the next room she found the costumes for L'Enlevement des Vierges Chinoises. She felt her hair, heavy and almost viscous along the length of her back and tickling the tops of her buttocks as she knelt beside the large box and searched for the costume of Su Feng.
Back in the hot room she quickly removed shoes and stockings, keeping her eyes closed tight until she had fastened her hair in back with the spangled amber comb. She was not pretty unless she wore something. The sight of her nude body repelled her. Until she had drawn on the blond silk tights, embroidered up each leg with a long, slender dragon; stepped into the slippers with the cut steel buckles, and intricate straps which writhed up halfway to her knees. Nothing to restrain her breasts: she wrapped the underskirt tightly around her hips. It fastened with thirty hooks and eyes from waist to thigh-top, leaving a fur-trimmed slit so that she could dance. And finally, the kimono, translucent and dyed rainbowlike with sunbursts and concentric rings of cerise, amethyst, gold and jungly green.
She lay back once more, hair spread above her on the pillowless mattress, breath taken by her own beauty. If Papa could see her.
The lay figure in the corner was light and carried easily to the bed. She raised her knees high and - interested - saw her calves in the mirror crisscross over the small of its plaster back. Felt the coolness of the figure's flanks against the nudecolored silk, high on her thighs, hugged it tight. The neck top, jagged and flaking off, came to her breasts. She pointed her toes, began to dance horizontal, thinking of how her handmaidens would be.
Tonight there would be a magic-lantern show. Itague sat outside L'Ouganda, drinking absinthe and water. The stuff was supposed to be aphrodisiac but it affected Itague the opposite. He watched a Negro girl, one of the dancers, adjusting her stocking. He thought of francs and centimes.
There weren't many. The scheme might succeed. Porcepic had a name among the avant-garde in French music. Opinion in the city was violently divided: once the composer had been loudly insulted in the street by one of the most venerable of the Post-Romantics. Certainly the man's personal life wasn't one to endear many prospective patrons, either. Itague suspected him of smoking hashish. And there was the Black Mass.
"The poor child," Satin was saying. The table in front of him was nearly covered with empty wine glasses. The Russian moved them from time to time, blocking out the choreography to l'Enlevement. Satin drank wine like a Frenchman, Itague thought: never outright falling-down drunk. But growing more unstable, more nervous, as his chorus of hollow glass dancers grew. "Does she know where her father's gone?" Satin wondered aloud, looking off into the street. The night was windless, hot. Darker than itague could ever remember it. Behind them the small orchestra began to play a tango. The Negro girl arose and went inside. To the south, the lights along the Champs Elysees picked out the underbelly of a nauseous-yellow cloud.
"With the father deserted," said Itague, "she's free. The mother doesn't care."
The Russian looked up, sudden. A glass fell over on his table.
"- or nearly free."
"Fled to the jungles, I understand," Satin said. A waiter brought more wine.
"A gift. What had he ever given before? Have you seen the child's furs, her silks, the way she watches her own body? Heard the noblesse in the way she speaks? He gave her all that. Or was he giving it all to himself, by way of her?"
"Itague, she certainly could be the most giving -"
"No. No, it is merely being reflected. The girl functions as a mirror. You, that waiter, the chiffonnier in the next empty street she turns into: whoever happens to be standing in front of the mirror in the place of that wretched man. You will see the reflection of a ghost."
"M. Itague, your late readings may have convinced you -"
"I said ghost," Itague answered softly. "Its name is not l'Heuremaudit, or l'Heuremaudit is only one of its names. That ghost fills the walls of this cafe and the streets of this district, perhaps every one of the world's arrondissements breathes its substance. Cast in the image of what? Not God. Whatever potent spirit can mesmerize the gift of ir reversible flight into a grown man and the gift of self-arousal into the eyes of a young girl, his name is unknown. Or if known then he is Yahweh and we are all Jews, for no one will ever speak it." Which was strong talk for M. Itague. He read
The woman stood at their table, not waiting for them to rise, merely standing and looking as if she'd never waited for anything.
"Will you join us," said Satin eagerly. Itague looked far to the south, at the hanging yellow cloud which hadn't changed its shape.
She owned a dress shop in the rue du Quatre-Septembre. Wore tonight a Poiret-inspired evening dress of crepe Georgette the color of a Negro's head, beaded all over, covered with a cerise tunic which was drawn in under her breasts, Empire style. A harem veil covered the lower part of her face and fastened behind to a tiny hat riotous with the plumage of equatorial birds. Fan with amber stick, ostrich feathers, silk tassel. Sand-colored stockings, clocked exquisitely on the calf. Two brilliant-studded tortoise-shell pins through her hair; silver mesh bag, high-buttoned kid shoes with patent leather at the toe and French heel.
Who knew her "soul," Itague wondered, glancing sideways at the Russian. It was her clothes, her accessories, which determined her, fixed her among the mobs of tourist ladies and putains that filled the street.
"Our prima ballerina has arrived today," said Itague. He was always nervous around patrons. As bartender he'd seen no need to be diplomatic.
"Melanie l'Heuremaudit," his patroness smiled. "When shall I meet her?"
"Any time," Satin muttered, shifting glasses, keeping his eyes on the table.
"Was there objection from the mother?" she asked.
The mother did not care, the girl herself, he suspected, did not care. The father's flight had affected her in some curious way. Last year she'd been eager to learn, inventive, creative. Satin would have his hands full this year. They would end up screaming at each other. No: the girl wouldn't scream.
The woman sat, lost in watching the night, which enveloped them like a velvet teaser-curtain. Itague, for all his time in Montmartre, had never seen behind it to the bare wall of the night. But had this one? He scrutinized her, looking for some such betrayal. He'd observed the face some dozen times. It had always gone through conventional grimaces, smiles, expressions of what passed for emotion. The German could build another, Itague thought, and no one could tell them apart.
The tango still played: or perhaps a different one, he hadn't been listening. A new dance, and popular. The head and body had to be kept erect, the steps had to be precise, sweeping, graceful. It wasn't like the waltz. In that dance was room for an indiscreet billow of crinolines, a naughty word whispered through mustaches into an ear all ready to blush. But here no words, no deviating: simply the wide spiral, turning about the dancing floor, gradually narrowing, tighter, until there was no motion except for the steps, which led nowhere. A dance for automata.
The curtain hung in total stillness. If Itague could have found its pulleys or linkage, he might make it stir. Might penetrate to the wall of the night's theater. Feeling suddenly alone in the wheeling, mechanical darkness of
The woman had been watching him, expressionless, poised like one of her own mannequins. Blank eyes something to hang a Poiret dress on. Porcepic, drunk and singing, approached their table.
The song was in Latin. He'd just composed it for a Black Mass to be held tonight at his Home in Les Batignolles. The woman wanted to come. Itague saw this immediately: a film seemed to drop from her eyes. He sat forlorn, feeling as if that most feared enemy of sleep had entered silently on a busy night, the one person whom you must come face to face with someday, who asks you, in the earshot of your oldest customers, to mix a cocktail whose name you have never heard.
They left Satin shuffling empty wine-glasses, looking as if tonight, in some tenantless street, he would murder.
Melanie dreamed. The lay figure hung half off the bed, its arms stretched out, crucified, one stump touching her breast. It was the sort of dream in which, possibly, the eyes are open: or the last vision of the room is so reproduced in memory that all details are perfect, and the dreamer is unclear whether he is asleep or awake. The German stood over the bed watching her. He was Papa, but also a German.
"You must turn over," he repeated insistently. She was too embarrassed to ask why. Her eyes - which somehow she was able to see, as if she were disembodied and floating above the bed, perhaps somewhere behind the quicksilver of the mirror-her eyes were slanted Oriental: long lashes, spangled on the upper lids with tiny fragments of gold leaf. She glanced sideways at the lay figure. It had grown a head, she thought. The face was turned away. "To reach between your shoulderblades," said the German. What does he look for there, she wondered.
"Between my thighs," she whispered, moving on the bed. The silk there was dotted with the same gold, like sequins. He placed his hand under her shoulder, turned her. The skirt twisted on her thighs: she saw their two inner edges blond and set off by the muskrat skin on the slit of the skirt. The Melanie in the mirror watched sure fingers move to the center of her back, search, find a small key, which he began to wind.
"I got you in time," he breathed. "You would have stopped, had I not. . ."
The face of the lay figure had, been turned toward her, all the time. There was no face.
She woke up, not screaming, but moaning as if sexually aroused.
Itague was bored. This Black Mass had attracted the usual complement of nervous and blase. Porcepic's music was striking, as usual; highly dissonant. Lately he had been experimenting with African polyrhythyms. Afterward Gerfaut the writer sat by a window, discoursing on how for some reason the young girl - adolescent or younger - had again become the mode in erotic fiction. Gerfaut had two or three chins, sat erect and spoke pedantically, though he had only Itague for an audience.
Itague didn't really want to talk with Gerfaut. He wanted to watch the woman who had come with them. She sat now in a side pew with one of the acolytes, a little sculptress from Vaugirard. The woman's hand, gloveless, and decorated only with a ring, stroked the girl's temple as they spoke. From the ring there sprouted a slender female arm, fashioned in silver. The land was cupped, and held the lady's cigarette. As Itague watched she lit another: black paper, gold crest. A small pile of stubs lay scattered beneath her shoes.
Gerfaut had been describing the plot of his latest novel. The heroine was one Doucette, thirteen and struggled within by passions she could not name.
"A child, and yet a woman," Gerfaut said. "And a quality of something eternal about her. I even confess to a certain leaning of my own that way.
The old satyr.
Gerfaut at length moved away. It was nearly morning. Itague's head ached. He needed sleep, needed a woman. The lady still smoked her black cigarettes. The little sculptress lay, legs curled up on the seat, head pillowed against her companion's breasts. The black hair seemed to float like a drowned corpse's hair against the cerise tunic. The entire room and the bodies inside it - some twisted, some coupled, some awake - the scattered Hosts, the black furniture, were all bathed in an exhausted yellow light, filtered through rain clouds which refused to burst.
The lady was absorbed in burning tiny holes with the tip of her cigarette, through the skirt of the young girl. Itague watched as the pattern grew. She was writing ma fetiche, in black-rimmed holes. The sculptress wore no lingerie. So that when the lady finished the words would be spelled out by the young sheen of the girl's thighs. Defenseless? Itague wondered briefly.
The next day the same clouds were over the city, but it did not rain. Melanie had awakened in the Su Feng costume, excited as soon as her eyes recognized the image in the mirror, knowing it hadn't rained. Porcepic showed up early with a guitar. He sat on the stage and sang sentimental Russian ballads about willow trees, students getting drunk and going off on sleigh-rides, the body of his love floating belly up in the Don. (A dozen young gathered round the samovar to read novels aloud: where had youth gone?) Porcepic, nostalgic, snuffled over his guitar.
Melanie, looking newly scrubbed and wearing the dress she'd arrived in, stood behind him, hands over his eyes, and caroled harmony. Itague found them that way. In the yellow light, framed by the stage, they seemed like a picture he'd seen somewhere once. Or perhaps it was only the melancholy notes of the guitar, the subdued looks of precarious joy on their faces. Two young people conditionally at peace in the dog days. He went into the bar and began chipping away at a large block of ice; put the chips into an empty champagne bottle and filled the bottle with water.
By noon the dancers had arrived, most of the girls seemingly deep in a love affair with Isadora Duncan. They moved over the stage like languid moths, gauzy tunics fluttering limp. Itague guessed half the men were homosexual. The other half dressed that way: foppish. He sat at the bar and watched as Satin began the blocking.
"Which one is she?" The woman again. In Montmartre, 1913, people materialized.
"Over there with Porcepic."
She hurried over to be introduced. Vulgar, thought Itague, and then amended it at once to "uncontrollable." Perhaps? A little.
Porcepic sat at the piano, playing Adoration of the Sun. It was a tango with cross-rhythms. Satin had devised some near-impossible movements to go with it. "It cannot be danced," screamed a young man, leaping from the stage to land, belligerent, in front of Satin.
Melanie had hurried off to change to her Su Feng costume. Lacing on her slippers she looked up and saw the woman, leaning in the doorway.
"You are not real."
"I . . ." Hands resting dead on her thighs.
"Do you know what a fetish is? Something of a woman which gives pleasure but is not a woman. A shoe, a locket . . . une jarretiere. You are the same, not real but an object of pleasure."
Melanie could not speak.
"What are you like unclothed? A chaos of flesh. But as Su Feng, lit by hydrogen, oxygen, a cylinder of lime, moving doll-like in the confines of your costume . . . You will drive Paris mad. Women and men alike."
The eyes would not respond. Not with fear, desire, anticipation. Only the Melanie in the mirror could make them do that. The woman had moved to the foot of the bed, ring hand resting on the lay figure. Melanie darted past her, continued on toes and in twirls to the wings; appeared on stage, improvising to Porcepic's lackadaisical attack on the piano. Outside thunder could be heard, punctuating the music at random.
It was never going to rain.
The Russian influence in Porcepic's music was usually traced to his mother, who'd been a milliner in St. Petersburg. Porcepic now, between his hashish dreams, his furious attacks on the grand piano out in Les Batignolles, fraternized with a strange collection of Russian expatriates led by a certain Kholsky, a huge and homicidal tailor. They were all engaged in clandestine political activity, they spoke volubly and at length of Bakunin Marx, Ulyanov.
Kholsky entered as the sun fell, hidden by yellow clouds. He drew Porcepic into an argument. The dancers dispersed, the stage emptied until only Melanie and the woman remained. Satin produced his guitar; Porcepic sat on the piano, and they sang revolutionary songs. "Porcepic," grinned the tailor, "you'll be surprised one day. At what we will do."
"Nothing surprises me," answered Porcepic. "If history were cyclical, we'd now be in a decadence, would we not, and your projected Revolution only another symptom of it."
"A decadence is a falling-away," said Kholsky. "We rise."
"A decadence," Itague put in, "is a falling-away from what is human, and the further we fall the less human we become. Because we are less human, we foist off the humanity we have lost on inanimate objects and abstract theories."
The girl and the woman had moved away from the stage's one overhead light. They could hardly be seen. No sound came from up there. Itague finished the last of the ice water.
"Your beliefs are non-human," he said. "You talk of people as if they were point-clusters or curves on a graph."
"So they are," mused Kholsky, dreamy-eyed. "I, Satin, Porcepic may fall by the wayside. No matter. The Socialist Awareness grows, the tide is irresistible and irreversible. It is a bleak world we live in, M. Itague; atoms collide, brain cells fatigue, economies collapse and others rise to succeed them, all in accord with the basic rhythms of History. Perhaps she is a woman; women area mystery to me. But her ways are at least measurable."
"Rhythm," snorted Itague, "as if you listened to the jitterings and squeaks of a metaphysical bedspring." The tailor laughed, delighted, like a great fierce child. Acoustics of the room gave his mirthfulness a sepulchral ring. The stage was empty.
"Come," said Porcepic. "To L'Ouganda," Satin on a table danced absently to himself.
Outside they passed the woman, holding Melanie by the arm. They were headed toward the Metro station; neither spoke. Itague stopped at a kiosk to buy a copy of
As they descended the moving stairs, the woman said, "You are afraid." The girl didn't answer. She still wore the costume, covered now with a dolman wrap which looked expensive and was, and which the woman approved of. She bought them first-class tickets. Closeted in the suddenly-materialized train, the woman asked: "Do you only lie passive then, like an object? Of course you do. It is what you are. Une fetiche." She pronounced the silent e's, as if she were singing. Air in the Metro was close. The same as outside. Melanie studied the tail of the dragon on her calf.
After some time had passed the train climbed to ground level. Melanie may have noticed they were crossing the river. To her left she saw the Eiffel Tower, quite near. They were crossing the Pont de Passy. At the first stop on the Left Bank the woman arose. She'd not left off clutching Melanie's arm. Out on the street they began to walk, bearing southwest, into the district of Grenelle: a landscape of factories, chemical works, iron foundries. They were alone in the street. Melanie wondered if the woman indeed lived among factories.
They walked for what seemed a mile: arrived, finally, at a loft building, in which only the third floor was occupied, by a manufacturer of belts. They climbed narrow stairs, flight after flight. The woman lived an the top floor. Melanie, though a dancer and strong-legged, now showed signs of exhaustion. When they arrived at the woman's rooms, the girl lay down without invitation on a large pouf in the center of the room. The place was decorated African and oriental: black pieces of primitive sculpture, lamp in the shape of a dragon, silks, Chinese red. The bed was a great four-poster. Melanie's wrap had fallen away: her legs, blond and bedragoned, lay unmoving half on the pouf, half on the oriental rug. The woman sat down beside the girl, resting her hand lightly on Melanie's shoulder, and began to talk.
If we've not already guessed, "the woman" is, again, the lady V. of Stencil's mad time-search. No one knew her name in Paris.
Not only was she V., however, but also V. in love. Herbert Stencil was willing to let the key to his conspiracy have a few of the human passions. Lesbianism, we are prone to think in this Freudian period of history, stems from self-love projected on to some other human object. If a girl gets to feeling narcissist, she will also sooner or later come upon the idea that women, the class she belongs to, are not so bad either. Such may have been the case with Melanie, though who could say: perhaps the spell of incest at Serre Chaude was an indication that her preferences merely lay outside the usual, exogamous-heterosexual pattern which prevailed in 1913.
But as for V. - V. in love - the hidden motives, if there were any, remained a mystery to all observers. Everyone connected with the production knew what was going on; but because intelligence of the affair remained inside a circle inclined toward sadism, sacrilege, endogamy and homoSexuality anyway, there was little concern, and the two were let alone, like young lovers. Melanie showed up faithfully at all rehearsals and as long as the woman wasn't enticing her away from the production - which, apparently, she had no intention of doing, being a patroness - Itague for one couldn't have cared less.
One day the girl arrived at Le Nerf accompanied by the woman and wearing schoolboys' clothing: tight black trousers a white shirt, a short black jacket. Moreover, her head - all her thick buttock-length hair - had been shorn. She was nearly bald; and but for the dancer's body no clothes could conceal, she might have been a young lad playing hooky. There was, fortunately, a long black wig in the costume box. Satin greeted the idea with enthusiasm. Su Feng would appear in the first act with hair, in the second without: having been tortured anyway by Mongolians. It would shock the audience, whose tastes, he felt, were jaded.
At every rehearsal, the woman sat at a rear table, watching, silent. All her attention was concentrated on the girl. Itague tried at first to engage her in conversation; but failed and went back to
But what actually was going on at the loft in Grenelle? Each mind at L'Ouganda and among the troupe at the Theatre Vincent Castor had conjured up a different scene; machines of exquisite torture, bizarre costuming, grotesque movements of muscle under flesh.
How disappointed they all would have been. Had they seen the skirt of the little sculptress-acolyte from Vaugirard, heard the pet-name the woman had for Melanie or read - as had Itague - in the new science of the mind, they would have known that certain fetishes never have to be touched or handled at all; only seen, for there to be complete fulfillment. As for Melanie, her lover had provided her with mirrors, dozens of them. Mirrors with handles, with ornate frames, full-length and pocket mirrors came to adorn the loft wherever one turned to look.
V. at the age of thirty-three (Stencil's calculation) had found love at last in her peregrinations through (let us be honest) a world if not created then at least described to its fullest by Karl Baedeker of Leipzig. This is a curious country, populated only by a breed called "tourists." Its landscape is one of inanimate monuments and buildings; near-inanimate barmen, taxi-drivers, bellhops, guides: there to do any bidding, to various degrees of efficiency, on receipt of the recommended baksheesh, pourboire, mancia, tip. More than this it is two-dimensional, as is the Street, as are the pages and maps of those little red handbooks. As long as the Cook's, Travellers' Clubs and banks are open, the Distribution of Time section followed scrupulously, the plumbing at the hotel in order - ("No hotel," writes Karl Baedeker, "can be recommended as first-class that is not satisfactory in its sanitary arrangements, which should include an abundant flush of water and a supply of proper toilette paper"), the tourist may wander anywhere in this coordinate system without fear. War never becomes more serious than a scuffle with a pickpocket, one of "the huge army . . . who are quick to recognize the stranger and skilful in taking advantage of his ignorance"; Depression and prosperity are reflected only in the rate of exchange; politics are of course never discussed with the native population. Tourism thus is supranational, like the Catholic Church, and perhaps the most absolute communion we know on earth: for be its members American, German, Italian, whatever, the Tour Eiffel, Pyramids, and Campanile all evoke identical responses from them; their Bible is clearly written and does not admit of private interpretation; they share the same landscapes, suffer the same inconveniences; live by the same pellucid time-scale. They are the Street's Own.
The lady V., one of them for so long, now suddenly found herself excommunicated; bounced unceremoniously into the null-time of human love, without having recognized the exact moment as any but when Melanie entered a side door to Le Nerf on Porcepic's arm and time - for a while - ceased. Stencil's dossier has it on the authority of Porcepic himself, to whom V. told much of their affair. He repeated none of it then, neither at L'Ouganda nor anywhere else: only to Stencil, years later. Perhaps he felt guilty about his chart of permutations and combinations, but to this extent at least he acted like a gentleman. His description of them is a well-composed and ageless still-life of love at one of its many extremes; V. on the pouf, watching Melanie on the bed; Melanie watching herself in the mirror; the mirror-image perhaps contemplating V. from time to time. No movement but a minimum friction. And yet one solution to a most ancient paradox of love: simultaneous sovereignty yet a fusing-together. Dominance and submissiveness didn't apply; the pattern of three was symbiotic and mutual. V. needed her fetish, Melanie a mirror, temporary peace another to watch her have pleasure. For such is the self-love of the young that a social aspect enters in: an adolescent girl whose existence is so visual observes in a mirror her double; the double becomes a voyeur. Frustration at not being able to fragment herself into an audience of enough only adds to her sexual excitement. She needs, it seems, a real voyeur to complete the illusion that her reflections are, in fact, this audience. With the addition of this other - multiplied also, perhaps, by mirrors - comes consummation: for the other is also her own double. She is like a woman who dresses only to be looked at and talked about by other women: their jealousy, whispered remarks, reluctant admiration are her own. They are she.
As for V., she recognized - perhaps aware of her own progression toward inanimateness - the fetish of Melanie and the fetish of herself to be one. As all inanimate objects, to one victimized by them, are alike. It was a variation on the Porpentine theme, the Tristan-and-Iseult theme, indeed, according to some, the single melody, banal and exasperating, of all Romanticism since the Middle Ages: "the act of love and the act of death are one." Dead at last, they would be one with the inanimate universe and with each other. Love-play until then thus becomes an impersonation of the inanimate, a transvestism not between sexes but between quick and dead; human and fetish. The clothing each wore was incidental. The hair shorn from Melanie's head was incidental: only an obscure bit of private symbolism for the lady V.: perhaps, if she were in fact Victoria Wren, having to do with her time in the novitiate.
If she were Victoria Wren, even Stencil couldn't remain all unstirred by the ironic failure her life was moving toward, too rapidly by that prewar August ever to be reversed.
The Florentine spring, the young entrepreneuse with all spring's hope in her virtu, with her girl's faith that Fortune (if only her skill her timing held true) could be brought under control that Victoria was being gradually replaced by V.; something entirely different, for which the young century had as yet no name. We all get involved to an extent in the politics of slow dying, but poor Victoria had become intimate also with the Things in the Back Room.
If V. suspected her fetishism at all to be part of any conspiracy leveled against the animate world, any sudden establishment here of a colony of the Kingdom of Death, then this might justify the opinion held in the Rusty Spoon that Stencil was seeking in her his own identity. But such was her rapture at Melanie's having sought and found her own identity in her and in the mirror's soulless gleam that she continued unaware off-balanced by love; forgetting even that although the Distribution of Time here on pouf, bed and mirrors had been abandoned, their love was in its way only another version of tourism; for as tourists bring into the world as it has evolved part of another, and eventually create a parallel society of their own in every city, so the Kingdom of Death is served by fetish-constructions like V.'s, which represent a kind of infiltration.
What would have been her reaction, had she known? Again, an ambiguity. It would have meant, ultimately, V.'s death: in a sudden establishment here, of the inanimate Kingdom, despite all efforts to prevent it. The smallest realization - at any step: Cairo, Florence, Paris - that she fitted into a larger scheme leading eventually to her personal destruction and she might have shied off, come to establish eventually so many controls over herself that she became - to Freudian, behaviorist, man of religion, no matter - a purely determined organism, an automaton, constructed, only quaintly, of human flesh. Or by contrast, might have reacted against the above which we have come to call Puritan, by journeying even deeper into a fetish-country until she became entirely and in reality - not merely as a love-game with any Melanie - an inanimate object of desire. Stencil even departed from his usual ploddings to daydream a vision of her now, at age seventy-six: skin radiant with the bloom of some new plastic; both eyes glass but now containing photoelectric cells, connected by silver electrodes to optic nerves of purest copper wire and leading to a brain exquisitely wrought as a diode matrix could ever be. Solenoid relays would be her ganglia, servo-actuators move her flawless nylon limbs, hydraulic fluid be sent by a platinum heart-pump through butyrate veins and arteries. Perhaps Stencil on occasion could have as vile a mind as any of the Crew - even a complex system of pressure transducers located in a marvelous vagina of polyethylene; the variable arms of their Wheatstone bridges all leading to a single silver cable which fed pleasure-voltages direct to the correct register of the digital machine in her skull. And whenever she smiled or grinned in ecstasy there would gleam her crowning feature: Eigenvalue's precious dentures.
Why did she tell so much to Porcepic? She was afraid, she said, that it wouldn't last; that Melanie might leave her. Glittering world of the stage, fame, foul-mind's darling of a male audience: the woe of many a lover. Porcepic gave her what comfort he could. He was under no delusions about love as anything but transitory, he left all such dreaming to his compatriot Satin, who was an idiot anyway. Sad-eyed, he commiserated with her: what else should he've done? Pass moral judgment? Love is love. It shows up in strange displacements. This poor woman was racked by it. Stencil however only shrugged. Let her be a lesbian, let her turn to a fetish, let her die: she was a beast of venery and he had no tears for her.
The night of the performance arrived. What happened then was available to Stencil in police records, and still told, perhaps, by old people around the Butte. Even as the pit orchestra tuned up there was loud argument in the audience. Somehow the performance had taken on a political cast. Orientalism - at this period showing up all over Paris in fashions, music, theater - had been connected along with Russia to an international movement seeking to overthrow Western civilization. Only six years before a newspaper had been able to sponsor an auto-race from Peking to Paris, and enlist the willing assistance of all the countries between. The political situation these days was somewhat darker. Hence, the turmoil which erupted that night in the Theatre Vincent Castor.
Before the first act was barely under way, there came catcalls and uncouth gestures from the anti-Porcepic faction. Friends, already calling themselves Porcepiquistes, sought to suppress them. Also present in the audience was a third force who merely wanted quiet enough to enjoy the performance and naturally enough tried to silence, prevent or mediate all disputes. A three-way wrangle developed. By intermission it had degenerated into near-chaos.
Itague and Satin screamed at each other in the wings, neither able to hear the other for the noise out in the audience. Porcepic sat by himself in a corner, drinking Coffee, expressionless. A young ballerina, returning from the dressing room, stopped to talk.
"Can you hear the music?" Not too well, she admitted. "Dommage. How does
The second act was even noisier. Only toward the end were the attentions of the few serious onlookers taken entirely by
Two of the male dancers, whom Itague had never left off calling Mongolized fairies, produced a long pole, pointed wickedly at one end. The music, near triple-forte, could be heard now above the roaring of the audience. Gendarmes had moved in at the rear entrances, and were trying ineffectually to restore order. Satin, next to Porcepic, one hand on the composer's shoulder, leaned forward, shaking. It was a tricky bit of choreography, Satin's own. He'd got the idea from reading an account of an Indian massacre in America. While two of the other Mongolians held her, struggling and head shaven, Su Feng was impaled at the crotch on the point of the pole and slowly raised by the entire male part of the company, while the females lamented below. Suddenly one of the automaton handmaidens seemed to run amok, tossing itself about the stage. Satin moaned, gritted his teeth. "Damn the German," he said, "it will distract." The conception depended on Su Feng continuing her dance while impaled, all movement restricted to one point in space, an elevated point, a focus, a climax.
The pole was now erect, the music four bars from the end. A terrible hush fell over the audience, gendarmes and combatants all turned as if magnetized to watch the stage.
It never opened. Melanie was supposed to have worn a protective metal device, a species of chastity belt, into which the point of the pole fit. She had left it off. A physician in the audience had been summoned at once by Itague as soon as he saw the blood. Shirt torn, one eye blackened, the doctor knelt over the girl and pronounced her dead.
Of the woman, her lover, nothing further was seen. Some versions tell of her gone hysterical backstage, having to be detached forcibly from Melanie's corpse; of her screaming vendetta at Satin and Itague for plotting to kill the girl. The coroner's verdict, charitably, was death by accident. Perhaps Melanie, exhausted by love, excited as at any premiere, had forgotten. Adorned with so many combs, bracelets, sequins, she might have become confused in this fetish-world and neglected to add to herself the one inanimate object that would have saved her. Itague thought it was suicide, Satin refused to talk about it, Porcepic suspended judgment. But they lived with it for many years.
Rumor had it that a week or so later the lady V. ran off with one Sgherraccio, a mad Irredentist. At least they both disappeared from Paris at the same time; from Paris and as far as anyone on the Butte could say, from the face of the earth.