Octave Mirbeau – The Diary of a Chambermaid,1900

DG Rossetti Veronica Veronese

Chapter X, November 3rd.

The topic of correctness in society being exhausted, there followed an embarrassing lull in the conversation, which Kimberly broke by telling of his last trip to London.
“Yes,” said he, “I spent in London an intoxicating week; and, ladies, I witnessed a unique thing. I attended a ritual dinner which the great poet, John-Giotto Farfadetti, gave to some friends to celebrate his betrothal to the wife of his dear Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton.”
“How exquisite that must have been!” minced the Countess Fergus.
“You cannot imagine,” answered Kimberly, whose look and gestures, and even the orchid that adorned the button-hole of his coat, expressed the most ardent ecstasy.
And he continued:
“Fancy, my dear friends, in a large hall, whose blue walls, though scarcely blue, are decorated with white peacocks and gold peacocks,—fancy a table of jade, inconceivably and delightfully oval. On the table some cups, in which mauve and yellow bonbons harmonized, and in the centre a basin of pink crystal, filled with kanaka preserves … and nothing more. Draped in long white robes, we slowly passed in turn before the table, and we took, upon the points of our golden knives, a little of these mysterious preserves, which then we carried to our lips … and nothing more.”
“Oh! I find that moving,” sighed the countess, “so moving!”
“You cannot imagine. But the most moving thing—a thing that really transformed this emotion into a painful laceration of our souls—was when Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton sang the poem of the betrothal of his wife and his friend. I know nothing more tragically, more superhumanly beautiful.”
“Oh! I beg of you,” implored the Countess Fergus, “repeat this prodigious poem for our benefit, Kimberly.”
“The poem, alas! I cannot. I can give you only its essence.”
“That’s it, that’s it! The essence.”
In spite of his morals, in which they cut no figure, Kimberly filled women with mad enthusiasm, for his specialty was subtle stories of transgression and of extraordinary sensations. Suddenly a thrill ran round the table, and the flowers themselves, and the jewels on their beds of flesh, and the glasses on the table-cloth, took attitudes in harmony with the state of souls. Charrigaud felt his reason departing. He thought that he had suddenly fallen into a mad-house. Yet, by force of will, he was still able to smile, and say:
“Why, certainly … certainly.”
The butlers finished passing something that resembled a ham, from which, in a flood of yellow cream, cherries poured like red larvæ. As for the Countess Fergus, half swooning, she had already started for extra-terrestrial regions.
Kimberly began:
“Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton and his friend, John-Giotto Farfadetti, were finishing their daily tasks in the studio which they occupied in common. One was the great painter, the other the great poet; the former short and stout, the latter tall and thin; both alike clad in drugget robes, their heads alike adorned with Florentine BONNETS, both alike neurasthenics, for they had, in different bodies, like souls and lily-twin spirits. John-Giotto Farfadetti sang in his verses the marvelous symbols that his friend, Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton, painted on his canvases, so that the glory of the poet was inseparable from that of the painter, and that their works and their immortal geniuses had come to be confounded in one and the same adoration.”
Kimberly stopped for a moment. The silence was religious. Something sacred hovered over the table. He continued:
“The day was nearing its end. A very soft twilight was enveloping the studio in a pallor of fluid and lunar shade. Scarcely could one still distinguish on the mauve walls the long, supple, waving, golden algæ that seemed to move in obedience to the vibration of some deep and magic water. John-Giotto Farfadetti closed the sort of antiphonary on the vellum of which, with a Persian reed, he wrote, or rather engraved, his eternal poems; Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton turned his lyre-shaped easel against a piece of drapery, placed his heart-shaped palette upon a fragile piece of furniture, and the two, facing one another, stretched themselves, with august poses of fatigue, upon a triple row of cushions, of the color of sea-weed.”
“Hum!” said Mme. Tiercelet, with a slightly warning cough.
“No, not at all,” said Kimberly, reassuringly; “it is not what you think.”
And he continued:
“In the centre of the studio, from a marble basin in which the petals of roses were bathing, a violent perfume was rising. And on a little table long-stemmed narcissuses were dying, like souls, in a narrow vase whose neck opened into the calyx of a lily, strangely green and distorted.”
“Impossible to forget,” said the countess, in a quivering voice, so low that it could scarcely be heard.
And Kimberly, without stopping, went on with his narration:
“Outside, the street became more silent, because deserted. From the Thames came, muffled by the distance, the distracted voices of sirens, the gasping voices of marine boilers. It was the hour when the two friends, giving themselves over to dreaming, preserved an ineffable silence.”
“Oh! I see them so clearly!” said Madame Tiercelet, in a tone of admiration.
“And that ‘ineffable,’ how evocative it is!” applauded the Countess Fergus, “and so pure!”
Kimberly profited by these flattering interruptions to take a swallow of champagne. Then, feeling that he was listened to with more passionate attention than before, he repeated:
“Preserved an ineffable silence. But on this special evening John-Giotto Farfadetti murmured: ‘I have a poisoned flower in my heart.’ To which Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton answered: ‘This evening a sorrowful bird has been singing in my heart.’ The studio seemed moved by this unusual colloquy. On the mauve wall, which was gradually losing its color, the gold algæ seemed to spread and contract, and to spread and contract again, in harmony with the new rhythms of an unusual undulation, for it is certain that the soul of man communicates to the soul of things its troubles, its passions, its fervors, its transgressions, its life.”
“How true that is!”
This cry, coming from several mouths at once, did not prevent Kimberly from going on with the recital, which thenceforth was to unfold itself amid the silent emotion of his hearers. His voice became even more mysterious.
“This minute of silence was poignant and tragic. ‘Oh! my friend!’ implored John-Giotto Farfadetti, ‘you who have given me everything, you whose soul is so marvelously twin with mine, you must give me something of yourself that I have not yet had, and from the lack of which I am dying.’ ‘Is it, then, my life that you ask?’ said the painter; ‘it is yours; you can take it.’ ‘No, it is not your life; it is more than your life; it is your wife!’ ‘Botticellina!’ cried the poet. ‘Yes, Botticellina; Botticellinetta; flesh of your flesh, the soul of your soul, the dream of your dream, the magic sleep of your sorrows!’ ‘Botticellina! Alas! Alas! It was to be. You have drowned yourself in her, she has drowned herself in you, as in a bottomless lake, beneath the light of the moon. Alas! Alas! It was to be.’ Two tears, phosphorescent in the penumbra, rolled from the eyes of the painter. The poet answered: ‘Listen to me, oh! my friend! I love Botticellina, and Botticellina loves me, and we shall both die of loving one another, and of not daring to tell one another, and of not daring to unite. She and I are two fragments, long ago separated, of one and the same living being, which for perhaps two thousand years have been seeking and calling one another, and which meet at last to-day. Oh! my dear Pinggleton, unknown life has these strange, terrible, and delicious fatalities. Was there ever a more splendid poem than that which we are living to-night?’ But the painter kept on repeating, in a voice more and more sorrowful, this cry: ‘Botticellina! Botticellina!’ He rose from the triple row of cushions upon which he was lying, and walked back and forth in the studio, feverishly. After some minutes of anxious agitation, he said: ‘Botticellina was Mine. Henceforth must she be Thine?’ ‘She shall be Ours!’ replied the poet, imperiously; ‘for God has chosen you to be the point of suture for this severed soul which is She and which is I! If not, Botticellina possesses the magic pearl that dissipates dreams, I the dagger that delivers from corporeal chains. If you refuse, we shall love each other in death.’ And he added, in a deep tone that resounded through the studio like a voice from the abyss: ‘Perhaps it would be better so.’ ‘No,’ cried the painter, ‘you shall live. Botticellina shall be Thine, as she has been Mine. I will tear my flesh to shreds, I will tear my heart from my breast, I will break my head against the wall, but my friend shall be happy. I can suffer. Suffering, too, is voluptuousness, in another form!’ ‘And a voluptuousness more powerful, more bitter, more fierce than any other!’ exclaimed John-Giotto Farfadetti, ecstatically; ‘I envy your fate, do you know? As for me, I really believe that I shall die either of the joy of my love or of the sorrow of my friend. The hour has come. Adieu!’ He rose, like an archangel. At that moment the drapery moved, opening and closing again on an illuminating apparition. It was Botticellina, draped in a flowing robe, of the color of the moonlight. Her floating hair shone around her like artificial fire. In her hand she held a golden key. An ecstasy was on her lips, and the night-sky in her eyes. John-Giotto rushed forward, and disappeared behind the drapery. Then Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton lay down again on the triple row of cushions, of the colour of sea-weed. And, while he buried his nails in his flesh, and while the blood streamed from him as from a fountain, the golden algæ, now scarcely visible, gently quivered upon the wall, which was gradually taking on a coating of darkness. And the heart-shaped palette and the lyre-shaped easel resounded long and long, in nuptial songs.”
For some moments Kimberly was silent; then, while the emotion that prevailed around the table was choking throats and compressing hearts, he concluded:
“And this is why I have dipped the point of my golden knife in the preserves prepared by kanaka virgins in honor of a betrothal more magnificent than any that our century, in its ignorance of beauty, has ever known.”
The dinner was over. They rose from the table in religious silence, but thrilled through and through. In the salon Kimberly was closely surrounded and warmly congratulated. The looks of all the women converged radiantly upon his painted face, surrounding it with a halo of ecstasies.
“Ah! I should so like to have my portrait painted by Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton,” cried Mme. de Rambure; “I would give anything to enjoy such happiness.”
“Alas! Madame,” answered Kimberly, “since the sorrowful and sublime event which I have related, Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton has been unwilling to paint human faces, however charming they may be; he paints only souls.”
“And he is right! I should so like to be painted as a soul!”
“Of what sex?” asked Maurice Fernancourt, in a slightly sarcastic tone, visibly jealous of Kimberly’s success.
The latter said, simply:
“Souls have no sex, my dear Maurice. They have….”
“Hair on their paws,” said Victor Charrigaud, in a very low voice, so as to be heard only by the psychological novelist, to whom he was just then offering a cigar.

Octave Mirbeau,1848-1917

Le Journal d’une femme de chambre,1900 The Diary of a Chambermaid. Chapter X, November 3rd

Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti,1828-1882 Veronica Veronese,1872. Oil on canvas. 1092 x 889 mm. Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935

Translation: Benj. R. Tucker. Octave Mirbeau, A Chambermaid’s Diary. Published by Benj. R. Tucker, New York, 1900. Source: http://www.gutenberg.org

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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