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The memoires of a Beauty
“L’histoire est un roman qui a été, le roman est une histoire qui aurait pu être.” (Concourt)
I am a master of the unique art which, by its voracity, captures all others inside: the hidden way for being destiny’s lover, faith’s mistress, bizarre creature dedicated to both celestial beauty and aristocratic noblesse, who, never writing something immortal, never making paintings, nor songs or plays, turned herself into a masterpiece more magnificent than Hera’s entire myth: une oeuvre d'art vivante.
I am Madame Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, Sargent’s Madame X, La Gandara’s muse: hues of my notoriety passed over decades, up to vous - so plunge in history, in past, in the memoires of a woman as elegant, as picturesque and as balmy as 19th century Paris…
I adored “to be”; “to be” desired, free, admired, talented, were just means in which I softly touched the full essence of my characteristic verb: always “to be”, to powerfully prove I existed around Parisians and French, and especially throughout my bitter enemy, represented in time. This notion defines me, contouring an explanation for how I’ve always lived, judged and act, because it was to be when Pierre married me, “to be” while Sargent metamorphosed the perfect body I had in his only chef-d'œuvre, “to be” keeping young Christine near… finally, “to be” which brought vanity inside.
Dusk gently covers Château des Chênes garden’s horizon with amaranth shades as I stray under some flowery arches. A mild wind shoves the crêpe-de-chine gown to caress my ivory skin, already nourished by its contact. One short rhetorical question grows from gazing at this garden’s wonders (why do people need “to be” if nature “is” since birth?) but melts quick- Annie calls.
“Alie, Alie!” her shuddered childish voice staggers the predominant silence “la belle Christine est ici! “ hastily continues, stopping just a few steps before me, on the narrow rose flanked lane.
Oh, she looks so pure - so fragile - this way, so similar to Louise’s physical aspect!
I lay my filled with overwhelming compassion eyes on her pale blonde figure, waiting more although she seems rather surprised and contradicted than prepared for giving additional information; Annie gets in a sort of hypnotic trance whenever she finds nothing new to communicate.
“Puis, allons à-t-elle!” my lips soon whisper on calm tonalities, inviting her near with a hand sign.” Sans doute, Christine nous attend.”
Suddenly snatched out of the respective trance, Annie replies my gestures by hanging up my dress’ hem and dragging me, slowly but firm, on the right direction, exactly as Louise used to. Well, long decades vanished since Louise was her age…
“L’endroit où reste la belle Christinne est par ici, Alie.”
“Bien, bien; je vais où tu veux.’’
The simple foolish games feed our human hearts and particularly quench my thirst of “to be”, I discover as we follow winding alleys present in a vivid remembered past where neither Christine or Annie impose their presence. How was it that time if today, in their absence, “to be” often devours me? Or now I’m struggling satisfying an existence state because I discover the impotence of women and the entire human race to seize eternal youth, annulling ephemera? I hardly gratify my social exactingnesses, once tamed to disappear in pleasures provided by satin train’s rustle, crystal snifter’s glance, Lafayette shopping, promiscuity of lovers, slight orchid smell, scandals over rumors, Opera requests to accompany royal figures (Keiser Willhem, Empress Sisi, Bavarian King Ludwig II) and, upon all, the heat proceeded from my complete association with that state I even momentary own.
Although I grow older, crèmes, massages, milk baths, appropriate promenades and silk masks alter huge features usually curst to fade along time’s elapsing, but neither a white ingénue vampire epiphany or a nymph physic may blind consciousness, which can clearly understand, torment, sear : “to be” incites uncountable storms in my pride, arouses venomous jealousy. So concentrated on consuming vices, I strain, thus neglecting sap giving details not long ago found juicy, vivid, and only people’s attendance keep me floating at the surface of life’s shallow waters; people idem Annie, who need earnest solicitude.
Twilight turned to night until we stepped in the manor’s balcony-porch where Christinne waited us stoned, surrounded by fugitive smoke coming out from her long cigarette holder in elegant gris perle loops.
“Bon day, madame Vírginie.”
“Good jour, ma cher.” I respond while opening the immense French glass-doors leading to my bedroom; Christine entered nonchalant; Annie shyly succeeded me.
“Exotic place, your Château des Chênes.“ she whispers with flexible sharp tonalities, pulls off her upset leather gloves and dashes to sprawl in my lap, pampering somehow cold, distant, wavy black hair tresses spreading negligent around a nacre face contrasted by darkened eyes and the red voluptuous mouth I hear almost uttering purrs.
Next, Christine starts depicting how she planned visiting it this month, before an illusionism representation at Lyon.
“I could seldom find such luxurious gardens outside English greenhouses…and the warm weather, the salty ocean breeze…no wonder you remain beautiful during this periodic karmesse!”
She throws me implied peeps to stress her bold affirmation.
“Mieux parle de ton spectacle, chérie. C’est plutôt intéressant que me flatter.” I mutter and absent comb, using my perfumed fingers, her rebel scattered hair.
“You attended one and I practiced no recent tricks…Shan’t we better eat than engage pointless mere verbiage regarding déjà vues?”
Partly ironic obeying Christine’s prompt suggestion, I ring the maid calling bell and order a frugal supper consisting of Ceylon tea with Escoffier’s dessert recipes, mainly crêpes Suzette, served in Sèvres porcelain sets. Soon, fresh aromas disperse from silver plates almost particular to guide us around them, in my immense baldachin bed; three women, three existential periods of a main character, three worlds gathered on damask cushions, relishing dainty cuisine, separating by silence and reciprocally admitting for precarious seconds; our feminine spirits’ collaboration knits marvelous bridges between rare compatible generations: three tied creatures, willingly apart when they refuse crossing this deck.
Although Annie and Christine won’t be here until death, I surrender their odd, delirious company which transmuted into safety’s mirage. Both are my ultimate asylum, my endeavour to sustain Madame Amélie Virginie Avegno Gautreau, me, a ruin that collapses without respite. I’m curious if they least observe the downfall.
“Vírginie, shouldn’t you too come at Lyon?”
Christine’s entreaty is my previous curiosity’s validation, her heed’s proof, glazed as a saving solution. Unfortunately Henri reserved tickets for Tout-à-Coup, Divine Sarah’s play in Théatre des Nations, hence I must prevaricate and decline it.
“Pardon, cherie, mais je dois aller à Paris parce que Henri m’attend.”
Resigned, she presses her cheek against my shoulder like a hugging request I instantly fulfil.
“Lyon might also offer you carnal delights.”
“J'ai besoin de la compagnie d'Henri, pas de son corps.”
“Don’t I sufficiently lie beside you?”
“Jamais comme un amant.”
Annie stares at us, intrigued, scared, trying to translate those incomprehensible adult phrases.
“A-tu fini de manger?”
She nods, pointing her empty blue china saucer and assorted cup.
“Alors nous devons aller dormer.”
The maid hurries clearing our feast’s remnants as my lady-of-courtesy ships Annie to wash and change in pajamas while I undress beneath the massive lace folding screen, adopting an almond silk kimono with golden vegetal prints - its touch amazingly relaxes: I even afford a relish sigh.
“You repel me.”
Christine, nestled under cool satin sheets, launches the accusation in hint’s tonality.
“Parce que je refuse de te suivre à Lyon ?”
“I don’t know why; just effect without obvious cause -maybe a passivity tricky to dissect.”
Fury, abominable fury blooms from my ashy tempestuous deeps and inexplicably attacks her supposition, verbally biting through a gigantic lack of remorse:
“Passivité ? C'était toujours la passivité entre nous mais toi, cherie, tu as refusé de le voir ; tu te flattes si tu crois que je me soucie de toi.”
Tranquil modulations pronounce this mournful lies idem honest, melting them in higher hidden truths she might not yet deserve finding. I am infinitesimally shocked by my temperament dissimulation since it’s something vital for surviving bourgeois entourages‘ snobbism, but I can’t repress the perplexity an apologize impulse brings.
If all anger was born from void, in void will end.
Inflexible, apparently immune to my inexplicable folly, Christine grabs Sigmund Freud’s most recent book, Zur Einführung des Narzißmus (“On Narcissism”), and carelessly reads… a page, two, three, then four; she represses indignation eluding our repellent quarrel whose purpose remained indistinct. Her marble profile suffers no specific mimic transfiguration, her members restrain spite’s shivers, her withdrawal in psychoanalytic theories camouflages the way Christine’s harmed pride recovers... still her sentiments are haughty, interiorised, only part sketched, unlike mine.
I sit down at the art nouveau mahogany dressing table, nervously powder in front of the vermeil mirror and decide to imitate my guest’s self control, distracting with a monopolizing topic meant for covering guilt. Exclusively oblivion could join us, the oblivion which, coagulating, wastes much crucial energy but worths the investment.
I judge my reflexion (not the unfair act), I price my frozen beauty: nacre pallor, rich copper hair amassed on a side, fine feminine statue muscles, ancient roman bracelets rounding thin wrists, original sober style, unwrinkled swan neck, noble rise chin… striking by refinement, grace, tact and grandeur instead of classic alluring body; impressive by culture, not curves or sensual shapes: the iconic Madame X I maintain alive, a flamboyant shell hosting changeable sensations when most people lead to the opposite, une oeuvre d'art vivante denying time’s hourglass; concise, a personality reflecting masque. Never shallow. Never true. Hanged between my inner beings to balance the ego: an uncommon beauty faith.
Powder homogenizes skin’s hues and vaguely reminds how it is drug for other aged women outside me (me who involuntarily skipped fading). The brush applies uniform opaque pearl pigments under the hand’s guidance, job Henri would normally assume because he enjoys spoiling - so my mind streams to lovers… I even drop Christine concentrating on them: Henri, André, Nameless, enumerated chronologically decreasing.
“Très, très étrange comment ils ont quitté leurs caractères à l'intérieur de moi!” I mutter. Each one consisted a golden prosperous eon closed with purifying calamities, a demeanour study stretched up to the verge of bearable patience, enchanting and prodigious as nothing external, though criminally exhausting. They wear the multicolour perspectives in which I linger to analyse men, life being a passe-partout of yore crippled by those who see just one part from a person.
Henri inspired me most. Married, brunet, erudite, sensational, he dared, in 1912, at La Comédie Française, sending big flowers bouquets to the woman his friends couldn’t introduce. We discussed about theatre, we commented upon beaux art, fashionable actors, the political affaire Dreyfus, Opéra and ballet, séance cinématographique, brave suffragettes meetings, innovator playwrights, Paul Poiret’s design house, Antoni Gaudí, French haute cuisine, Picasso’s empirical cubism, abroad journeys, The Souls, Monet’s Mediterranean trip, Ballets Russes, Le Salon d’Automne versus Le National, my scandalous Singer Sargent portrait… and I admired his passionate initiative for conquering me, a much older lady. Otherwise I couldn’t escape André’s shadow, not spared by Henri’s enthusiastic support, Henri’s animation and “sacrosanct” mundanity. He quenches my latest nostalgia with the cosmopolitanism, gallantry and scrupulousness typically dandy, drawing the ideal lover’s script. Post André, his tender flattering manners turned into a discreet human antidote able to bandage the thick environing solitude of my amorous illusions utilizing courtesy techniques I barely tasted during André’s “sojourn”. Henri squeezes fun painting me, as a dilettante, in nude Venusian positions, debates incontestable delicious subjects, incessantly uses the right parole, escorts me at La Comédie Française, Hippodrome, Louvre and Maxim, sardonic jokes on vulgar phony manifestations, tolerates Annie’s timid demands, encircle my apartment with blanche roses to signal his arrival: small affection clues André eliminated.
I erect rise from the dressing table and prop up the bed’s quilted panel, chaining Christine in a tired glance which discloses my woes.
“Pardonne-moi, ma chère, si tu crois que tu pourries.”
She abandons her Freudian lecture for examining, implacable, absent, hostile, the virtual precipice that absorbs any hope of clemency between us, maybe hating me, swearing to savagely revenge, but superbly trapped in a cage I posses: my bed, my room, my invisible leash. Christine’s breath gradually decreases until it nearly stagnates, point when her apogee weakness permits gentle strokes as I mould on the sheet and maternally surround her waist with my sable arms, concluding an armistice. Thus we must reconcile.
Yet she impassively sets out to the faint illuminated porch, quite sure I will insist, testing my statement’s viability and hesitating, dissimulated, at the altercation’s sealing.
“Reviens, ma chère. Tu sais que je l'ai voulu dire quand je me suis excusé.”
Moonlight accidentally falls like a smelted platinum blemish in Christine’s hair while she turns to me, advances towards the bed and softly leans her head on my chest. Case solved.
“I haven’t slept these weeks...Folies Bergère girls are exceedingly nocturnal and pretty eager to seize me in a Sapphic romance. Unless I had arrived here I wouldn’t have rest.”
Christine nicely yawns, ascertaining me with her very liquid, very glassy velvet emerald irises which grin, shearing, smart, shrewd, their opinion about Folies Bergère dancers: fool cocottes who search money, sex, rich patrons and endearment, some indeed stupid, some indulged in Montmartre’s dirty blindness, some thriving, some Toulouse Lautrec ex models, all amassed at cabarets, brothels or casinos where they expect salvation. It is beyond my mental capacity to realize why Christine frequents such depraved plebes, even luxury ones, if Paris presents a larger flippant women gamut that includes beau monde dames, not exclusively vagabond prostitutes of Mata Hari’s class and aspirations.
“Vírginie, hitherto, nine Isadora Duncan adepts effectively harassed me, hoaxed by the inkling proceeding from which I could introduce them in Natalie Barney’s promiscuous Rue Jacob pavilion! “
Keen sniggers split her dialogue, so savoury with their cynical intonation.
“Poor competitive can-can lesbians proved pathetically motivated to win my illusory favours as if I should waste precious time impelling them on grand European stages! Hopeless attempts! Natalie Barney herself would just profit!”
Christine’s mocking narrative style and obvious disgust for silly grisettes expands to me with a newer arrogance tint. It bears the infantile victory’s flavour above a mauvais goût category, marginalized, pushed to struggle, yet maliciously abjured because fine madams in my condition have the propensity, the tendency to, once climbed on high social layers, play brutish and merciless with what they consider low, dull, muddy or wanton. Somehow, it’s a reversible discrimination, a punishment devolved from the recent fame cocottes won but thorough shameful lock of intelligence, flagrant injustice which revolts our dignity and offends the pride’s morality promoted by their own idols, demimondaines in Liane de Pougy manner, who shall never ridicule womanhood.
Involuntary, tender, Christine’s fingers outline my collarbone.
“None threatens to outclass La Belle Otero- they pointlessly accost me when I’m no Zeus to infuse them the talent, the minimum quality required for long-term celebrity.”
“En tout cas, il y a beaucoup de grisettes qui sont devenues réputées sans n'importe quel talent particulier.”
“You count here La Goulue?”
“Elle ou Kiki et autre prostituées de rabaissement qui tache la dignité de toutes les femmes, les femmes qui essaient de gagner des droits quand ces agissent si irresponsable que possible presque de prouver que nous sommes trop naïfs pour recevoir des droits ?”