Update and second installment: Blogging is an awkward way to distribute a story, but I haven’t quite figured out how to post my in-progress work. If you read the first installment, scroll down to the boldface sentence, which marks the beginning of the second installment. (I made a few wording changes in the first installment, as well.)
“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”
No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.
“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”
When the clasp clicked, the pearly-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.
“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”
“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”
In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.
“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”
“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”
He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his pearly-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.
“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”
Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”
“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”
He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball. “And how! Me, I’m above all conventions. I find it idiotic that a man can accept from a woman one pearl on a tie clip, or two on buttons, and he is considered dishonored if she gives him fifty.”
“Forty-nine, I know the number. Tell me that it doesn’t become me. Tell me that I’m ugly.”
He bent over the recumbent woman with a provocative grin that displayed his tiny, white teeth and the lining of his lips.
Léa sat up on the bed. “No, I don’t say that. First, because you would never believe that. Even so, you ought not to grin and crinkle your nose like that. You’ll be very happy when you get three permanent wrinkles at the corners of your nose, n’est-ce pas?
Immediately he ceased grinning, smoothed the skin of his forehead, and bowed his head like an old coquette. They regarded each other with an air of hostility, she leaning back amid her lace lingerie, he sitting sidesaddle, Amazon-like, on the bed. He thought, She’s well to tell me about the wrinkles I’ll get. She thought, Why is it ugly when he smiles like that, he who is beauty in essence?
“It’s because you have the air of evil when you smile cheerfully. . . . You never smile wickedly or in mockery. But a cheerful smile makes you ugly. You are often ugly.”
“That’s not true!” cried Chéri, irritated. The anger knitted his eyebrows, filled his wide eyes with the light of insolence, weaponized his eyelashes, and he half-opened his disdainful, chaste mouth.
Léa smiled to see him, whom she loved, revolt, then submit, badly enchained, incapable of freeing himself. She put a hand on the young head, which impatiently shook off the yoke. She murmured as if calming an animal. “There, there. What is it? What is it now?”
He fell on the beautiful, large shoulder, burying his forehead, his nose, in the familiar spot, and closed his eyes and sought his protégé fee for the long afternoons, but Lea repulsed him.
“None of that, Chéri. You lunch today at the house of our national harpy, and it is twenty minutes till noon.”
“No? I’m lunching at the house of my patroness? You, too?”
Léa slid lazily back into bed. “Not me. I’m on vacation. I’ll go to take coffee at two-thirty—or tea at six o’clock—or a cigarette at seven forty-five. . . . Don’t let it disturb you; she’ll see enough of me. . . . And, besides, she didn’t invite me.”
Chéri, who stood sulking, lit up with malice. “I know—I know why. We have it good, don’t we, and we have the lovely Marie-Laure and her poison-child.”
Léa’s big, blue eyes wandered, then focused. “Ah! Yes, Charming, the little one. Less than his mother, but charming. . . .So, the necklace is at an end.”
“Sad,” sighed Chéri as he unclasped it. ”It would fit in well with my trash.”
Léa rose from her couch. “What trash?”
“Mine,” said Chéri with comic importance. “The baubles that will be the trinkets for my wedding.” He leapt, recovered his feet after a perfect entrechat-six, thrust open the door on a whim and disappeared shouting, “My bath, Rose! As deep as possible. I lunch at the house of my patroness!”
There it is, Léa mused. A soak in the bathroom, eight bath towels, and razor shavings in the bowl. If only I had two bathrooms. . . .”
But she reminded herself of the other times when it had become necessary to remodel the boudoir, remove a wardrobe, and concluded as in the other times, I must be patient. I’ll wait until Chéri’s wedding.
She lay back down and noticed that earlier Chéri had thrown his socks on the mantle, his smalls on the writing table, looped his tie over the bust of Léa. She smiled in spite of herself at the heated masculine disarray and half-closed her great, tranquil, bright-blue eyes, which still retained all their chestnut lashes. At forty-nine years, Leonie Vallon called Léa de Lonval, was ending a career as a well-to do courtesan, a good woman whose life had been blessed with nothing but flattering catastrophes and noble regrets. She concealed the date of her birth, but she gladly confessed, because of her voluptuous condescension toward Chéri, that she had attained an age at which she was entitled to a few indulgences. She loved order, clean linens, mature wines, intelligent cuisine.
As a young blonde she had not accepted adulation; as a mature, rich, demi-monde she had not accepted annoying flattery, and her friends would forever recall how, on the Day of Coach Races around 1895, she had responded to a Gil Blas copyeditor who had called her a “sweet artiste,” “Artiste? Oh, really, my friend, my lovers are too indiscreet!”
Her contemporary rivals were jealous of her imperturbable health; the younger ones, whose bosoms and behinds required enhancement from 1912 fashions, laughed at Léa’s ample bosom. But both sets of women equally envied her Chéri. “Oh, my God,” Léa said, “the affair is nothing.” They can have him. I’m not attached to him, and he goes his own way.
In truth, she was telling a boastful half-truth about their liaison: sometimes, having a penchant for sincerity, she had called it an adoption. “The trinkets,” Léa repeated, “it isn’t possible. It isn’t humane to give a young girl to Chéri. Why throw a bitch to the dog? People don’t know what Chéri is.”
She told the pearls of the necklace like a rosary, as it lay on the bed. Lately she had begun to take it off at night because Chéri, who so loved the lovely pearls that he always caressed them in the morning, would notice each time how Lea’s neck—thicke
r—was losing its whiteness and the skin and muscles their tautness. She hooked the clasp at the back of her neck without the latch and took it to the mirror over the console by the head of the bed.