Madame Péricand's face wore the same resigned, bitter look as when the children were ill and she was forced to put on an apron and nurse them; they all usually managed to be ill at the same time, though with different maladies. When this happened, Madame Péricand would come out of the children's rooms with a thermometer in her hand, as if she were brandishing the crown of martyrdom, and everything in her bearing seemed to cry out: "You will reward your servants on Judgement Day, kind Jesus!"
"What about Philippe?" was all she asked.
"Philippe cannot leave Paris."
Madame Péricand left the room, head held high. She refused to bow beneath the burden. She would see to it that the entire household was ready to leave in the morning: the elderly invalid, four children, the servants, the cat, plus the silver, the most valuable pieces of china, the fur coats, food and medicine in case of emergencies. She shuddered.
In the sitting room, Hubert was pleading with his father. "Please let me stay. I can stay here with Philippe. And . . . don't make fun of me! Can't you see that if I went and got my friends we could form a com- pany of volunteers; we're young, strong, ready for anything . . . We could . . ."
Monsieur Péricand looked at him. "My poor boy!" was all he said.
"It's all over? We've lost the war?" stammered Hubert. "Is . . . is it true?"
And suddenly, to his horror, he felt himself burst into tears. He cried like a baby, like Bernard would have cried, his large mouth twisted, tears streaming down his face. Night was falling, soft and peaceful. A swallow flew by, lightly brushing against the balcony in the dark night air. The cat let out a frustrated little cry of desire.
The writer Gabriel Corte was working on his terrace, between the
dark, swaying woods and the golden green setting sun fading over
the Seine. How peaceful everything was around him! Beside him
were his well-trained faithful friends, great white dogs who
were awake yet motionless, their noses pressed against the cool
paving stones, their eyes half closed. At his feet his mistress
silently picked up the sheets of paper he dropped. His servants,
the secretary, were all invisible behind the shimmering windows;
they were hidden somewhere in the background of the house, in
the wings of his life, a life he desired to be as brilliant,
luxurious and disciplined as a ballet. He was fifty years old
and had his favourite games. Depending on the day, he was either
Lord of the Heavens or a miserable writer crushed by hard work
and labouring in vain. On his desk he had had engraved, "To lift
such a heavy weight, Sisyphus, you will need all your courage."
His fellow writers were jealous of him because he was rich. He
himself bitterly told the story of his first candidature to the
Académie Française: one of the electors implored to vote for him
had sarcastically replied, "He has three telephone lines!"
He was handsome, with the cruel, languid movements of a cat, expressive soft hands and a slightly full Roman face. Only Florence, his official mistress, was allowed to remain in his bed until morning (the others never spent the night with him). Only she knew how many masks he could put on, this old flirt with dark circles under his eyes and thin arched eyebrows, too thin, like a woman's.
That evening he was working as he normally did, half-naked. His house in Saint-Cloud had been specially built to be hidden away from prying eyes, right down to the vast, wonderful terrace, planted with blue cinerarias. Blue was Gabriel Corte's favourite colour. He could only write if he had a small glass bowl of deep lapis lazuli beside him. He would look at it now and again, and caress it like a mistress. What he liked best in Florence, as he often told her, were her clear blue eyes, which gave him the same feeling of coolness as his glass bowl. "Your eyes quench my thirst," he would murmur. She had a soft, slightly flabby chin, a contralto voice that was still beautiful and, Gabriel Corte confided to his friends, something cow-like in her expression. I like that. A woman should look like a heifer: sweet, trusting and generous, with a body as white as cream. You know, like those old actresses whose skin has been softened by massage, make-up and powder.
Excerpted from Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky Copyright © 2006 by Irene Nemirovsky. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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