I. Leisure Nights

I left the theatre where I sat every evening in a stage box, dressed with the elegance and care befitting my hopes. Sometimes the house was full, and sometimes empty, but it mattered little to me whether my eyes rested upon thirty or forty deadheads in the pit and upon boxes filled with old-time caps and dresses, or whether I found myself part of an enthusiastic audience, crowding every tier with colour and the gleam of jewels. The stage awakened my interest no more than did the house, except, during the second and third scene of the tiresome play, when a vivid appearance illuminated the empty spaces, and, with a breath and a word, summoned the shadowy figures of the actors back to life.

I felt that I lived in her, and that she lived only for me. Her smile filled me with infinite contentment, and the resonance of her voice, now soft, now vibrating with emotion, made me tremble with joy and love. She understood all my enthusiasms and whims; for me she possessed every perfection—radiant as the day, when the footlights shone upon her from below; pale as the night, when the footlights were turned down and the rays of the chandelier showed her simple beauty against a curtain of shadows, like one of the divine Hours carved on the sombre background of the frescoes of Herculaneum.

For a year it had not entered my mind to find out what her life away from the theatre might be, and I was loath to disturb the magic mirror that held her image. I may have listened to idle speculations about her private life, but my interest in it was no greater than in the prevailing rumours about the Princess of Elis or the Queen of Trebizond, for one of my uncles who had lived in the eighteenth century had warned me in good time that an actress was not a woman and that Nature had forgotten to give her a heart. Of course he meant those of his own time, but he recounted so many of his illusions and his deceptions, and he showed me so many portraits on ivory—charming medallions which now adorned his snuff-boxes—so many faded letters and ribbons, each the token of a disappointment, that I had fallen into the habit of mistrusting them all.

We were in the midst of strange years then, years like those that generally follow a revolution or the decline of a great empire. There was none of the noble gallantry of the Fronde, the polite vice of the Regency, or the scepticism and mad orgies of the Directorate; we lived in a confusion of activity, hesitation, and indolence, of dazzling Utopias, of philosophical or religious aspirations, of vague enthusiasms mingled with certain impulses towards a renewal of life, of weariness at the thought of past discord, of unformulated hopes—it was something like the epochs of Peregrinus and Apuleius. We looked for new birth from the bouquet of roses that the beautiful Isis would bring us; and at night the young and pure goddess appeared, and we were stricken with shame for the daylight hours we wasted. But ambition had no part in our life, for the greedy race for position and honours had closed to us all possible paths to activity. Our only refuge from the multitude was that Ivory Tower of the poets which we were always climbing higher and higher. Upon these heights whither our masters led us, we breathed at last the pure air of solitude, we drank forgetfulness from the golden cup of legend, and we were intoxicated with poetry and love. Love, alas! vague figures, tinges of blue and rose, spectral abstractions! Intimacies with women offended our ingenuousness, and it was our rule to look upon them as goddesses or queens, and above all never to approach them.

But there were some of our number nevertheless who thought little of these platonic sublimities, and sometimes amid our dreams borrowed from Alexandria they shook the smouldering torch of subterranean gods, and sent a trail of sparks through the darkness. Thus on leaving the theatre, my soul full of the sadness of a fading vision, I was glad to avail myself of the society of a club where many were supping and where melancholy yielded to the unfailing warmth of certain brilliant spirits whose ardour and passion often rendered them sublime—such people as one always meets during periods of renovation or decadence—people whose discussions often reached a point where the more timid amongst us would go to the windows to make certain that the Huns, or the Turcomans, or the Cossacks, had not arrived at last to put an end to rhetoric and sophism. ‘Let us drink, let us love, that is wisdom!’ was the only opinion of the youths among them, and it was one of these who said to me:

  By PanEris using Melati.

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