This selection is forthcoming in The Babel Anthology, issue one. The original French text of this selection can be found here.
Never previously translated into English, Une Vieille Maîtresse was first published in 1866, and was made into a film by Catherine Breillat in 2007, with Asia Argento in the title role. Ryno, a young aristocratic Frenchman, has recently married the innocent Hermangarde. But he is unable to resist the call of his magnetic, unstable former mistress, the Spanish courtesan La Vellini, and agrees to visit her once more.
In the scene that follows, Vellini sees Ryno for the first time since his marriage.
“Ah! In ten minutes he’ll be here!” she cried. Her voice resounded like a trumpet, blown by the proud lips of Victory. She rose, beaming, and took from the chest a crystal platter, patterned in the Eastern style, setting alight a number of small pastilles of amber and of rose from which wafted an intoxicating vapor, which spread throughout the small cottage. Across the snow, she heard the whinnying of a horse, turning between the hedge and the hill. She flung open the door, and between her fingers, gleaming with rings, she hissed out Ryno’s name.
He had seen her; he had heard her. He had already emptied the iron brackets and attached to the iron ring, which was in those days affixed to all the gates in Normandy, his sweat-glistening horse, on whose back he had carefully thrown his coat. He came to her, making his way to that frozen threshold where she stretched out her naked arms, her naked face.
“Let’s go on in, then. Again this bloody cheek…” he muttered, and entered. The door was closed once more, and they sat together upon the bales of hay. Ryno, trembling with some holy dread – for he felt all too keenly his sin in having stolen by night to this interview, his wife still slumbering in trustful repose – was almost dignified in his melancholy, an aura that only set into relief the sultry sensuality of the senora opposite him.
Against the frost he had worn a sable hat – one of Hermangarde's whimsies – and a coat of dull green, cinched at the waist and, like the hat, lined with sable. The tail of the coat, which swayed like the fustanelles of the Greeks, fell to the knee above his creased boots, from which shone steel spurs. Thus outfitted, he had the air of some mysterious alpine hunter, or a chainmail-clad chevalier of eras past. He had all the ripened beauty of a man who has touched upon the greatest intensity of his own power, of his passion, of his deliberation, and who now glides towards the midday-point of his own life, like Helios in his chariot of fire. Vellini took him all in, her gaze luxuriating in his youth.
“Time is as great a fraud as your marriage!” she cried, “As great a fraud as the love which fades and says, “It’s all over, forever!” because it fades. But you have come, Ryno! Tonight, we do not have ten years piled high upon our heads – no, you are more beautiful than when I saw you for the first time. The death of our love cannot hold us back, for are we not here, our hands twined like this, ready, perhaps, to call back the past, to start anew our love?”
“Quiet!” he cried. “Just be quiet!” And in his face and in his bearing there was such magnificence that even she, even that capricious and proud Vellini, fell silent.
But after a silence, he spoke again, in the voice of a man long weary of struggle. “Talk, if you want! Say whatever you want to. It's true, after all – I've come. I couldn't resist your letter. I couldn't resist that longing for the past, those sentiments you've awakened in my heart. I tried to snuff it out. I couldn't.
“No fanatic ever threw himself upon his altar the way I've thrown myself at Hermangarde's feet. I've held that charming girl into my arms – as gorgeous as the dawn, as gentle as a king's daughter – held her in my arms like a drowning man holds fast to the raft that saves him. And as God is my witness, it's you – yes, you to whom I've now come – you who have caused all this. You've given her more kisses, more embraces, more caressing tendernesses for her than I ever could have given her as free man. I told you she was beautiful; I feel sure that I love her enough to drown in the very drunkenness she inspires in my heart, and yet...that inevitable sentiment of the pass, this magic that defies all sense, all life, this atrocious mirage that my mind, hypnotized, comes back to again and again.
I plunged myself between her breasts. I hid myself away in her soul, the way the damned plunge their faces into their hands, so that they cannot see God! It's mad – it's in vain! They must see Him! They must feel that burning hand upon their heart. And so it is with me. The past – that which measures and cuts the thread of my life! - has seized hold of the deepest and most visceral part of my being and holds it fast.
“And this, this, is why I've come, Vellini. I've heard it said that, in battle, when the breasts of stallions are pierced but lightly by some bayonet, an incomprehensible attraction to pain goads them onwards, so that they thrust themselves upon its point, impaled to the heart. This is the force that has been driving me back to you, Vellini, since the day I saw you again. All our memories were asleep within me, buried beneath Hermangarde's charms, her soft breaths against my chest. And then I saw you. You have dredged up all those entombed thoughts which would, little by little, have disintegrated within my memory and, like a child who sends the plague upon a whole province, simply by stirring the mud from a marsh with his foot, you, with a loveless call from that past live, you have spread the infection from your soul to mine – and poisoned my happiness!”
“I know all that,” she said, without emotion. She had laid her head upon his chest, which still shook with the violence of his pain, and when at last the storm had subsided she spoke again. “I know all that,” she repeated. “Thus it has been written. We have divided our lives the way men split up a single piece of gold, cut into two so that we each might have a part. But life is not some inert metal.” As she spoke she snapped apart her golden comb, and tossed the two halves into the hair, as lightly as if they were but the pieces of a hazel switch.
“Sooner or later, the pieces had to find one another again. The two halves of the heart must join up again, if only to die together in a single, futile twitch. You have fallen victim to the inevitable, because you believed in the happiness Hermangarde could give you, because you believed it could lift you out of the earth and erase your memories.
But remember, Ryno? Did you not see, with me, one day, in the Cevennes, an injured eagle, who carried his wound through the sky, marking in the air the bloody path of his last, tortured flight? Ryno, Ryno, this is your story. In Hermangarde's arms, rising to that pure, blue place, you carried within your breast those ten growing years of Vellini, and neither the happiness your wife gives, nor the crown of the heavens, if the eagle I remember had been able to rise up to that crown – can fight again it – not your wound, not his. Oh Ryno – you've fought in vain. And I know you've fought it.” An aura of the oracular permeated her gaze, her voice. “My mirror has told me that much. I've seen it all.”
And she showed him a little tin glass, hanging from her coral necklace. It was an enchanted mirror, a talisman that had been given to her mother in Malaga by a gypsy on the church steps, as thanks for alms. “You have fought against me, against yourself, against Fate, against blood. The glass has veiled you for a long time. Everything within was hazy, obscured, fogged-up. But now it sees you clearly. Tonight I saw you in it – leaving the great gate of your manor-house in Carteret, coming to me as swiftly as if you had the two wings of an archangel on your shoulders, and your horse the two wings of a hippogriff.”
He smiled bitterly at the strangeness of her words, but he knew the truth too well. If she was mad, she was, at least, convinced – and conviction was the force of God, granted a moment in the hands of men. Half-smiling in disbelief – yet nonetheless shaken through by her words – he leaned over to look at the mirror that she held out at the tips of her slender fingers. He saw nothing there but the opaquely green glow of the metal, but as he leaned, his cheek touched hers.
His flesh knew her flesh. The body, like the soul, has its memories. If the sight of her letters, traced in blood and frozen upon the cold parchment, had first begun to warm his heart, now his blood was no longer dry. It flowed; it coursed through him, burning like carmine, behind all those transparent barricades he had walled up against her.
The galvanizing tremor of cheek touching cheek – it was the spark to the powder!
“I know it all too well,” Ryno struggled to speak. “I know too well that I'll regret it tomorrow. That I will take from your side only bleak disgust with myself – but wherefore art thou, Vellini?” And already he was looking up at her, losing himself in the vastness of her eyes. Her irises, grown large with the force of her reignited passion, seemed to have absorbed their prey, like a violent blaze which licks the milk from a full cup, and leaves the bottom blackened and charred.
“It isn't me, Ryno – it's Fate! It's blood!” She spoke slowly, stubbornly, blindly, her voice deep and melodic, that she reappeared to Ryno like she had been in the first days of their youth: a mysterious and mythical creature, with shadows in her voice, in her gaze, upon her lips, challenging him with these shadows, goading him onwards to nameless pleasures.
This was one of her greatest powers, and to it Ryno had always succumbed. He hoped now that in ceding everything to this irresistible attraction which avenged Vellini her ugliness, plunging himself in, holding nothing back, he would succeed at last in annihilating himself. He was in agony.
He had told himself that his desire was only an illusion of perspective, sensations of the past made grander by their distance, wisps of memory. And he pressed her to his heart with a violent passion, half-convinced he held nothing more than a ghost, convinced that the force of that embrace would make that specter vanish in his arms, and that the charms to which he had fallen victim would at last – at last! - be broken! His thirst grew with his need to slake it.
For Ryno, it was like the story of the Spartans and Helots – the Helots forced to drink in order to deter the Spartans from true drunkenness, but – cruelty of fate! -- in the breast of this accursed happiness, the spell did not break. The phantom was a real and living self, withstanding the madness of his embrace, responding in kind. His drunkenness increased, but he found no satiety in the dregs of his intoxication. The Helot did not deter the Spartan. In vain, with each kiss, each bite, he waited to see his desires fall dead before him, to feel his veins slow, his face cool, his beating breast calm itself at last. But Fate – for so Vellini had prophesied – bitterly betrayed his hopes. The more he plunged himself into that enchanted lake of long-ago caresses, the more he descended into that sea of rapturous agony, the further he found himself from shore – that sandy shore towards which he sought as the end of this guilty pleasure.
He was like that Egyptian priest who longed to prove that long-worshipped Isis was nothing but a fiction, and who tore with one frantic hand her linen strips, her sails. Alas! With each torn sail, he found a miraculous veil, and beneath each ripped veil there appeared again another sail, and the goddess – invisible, always – annihilated any doubt of her mysterious divinity.