Her shawl was very thin, her shoes soaked up water. When she sat down inthe leather chair, I noticed the heavy bags under her eyes, her red nose. She could have been sitting peacefully by a fireside, sleeping through long nights, could have been beautiful, elegant, and no doubt loved. But she went from city to city, ate badly, slept little, neglecting her appearance, wearing out her shoes and her strength. For what profit?
"You tire yourself out too much," I said.
She shrugged her shoulders and remained silent.
"You ought to pay more attention to yourself."
"One can't pay attention to oneself," she replied.
There was a note of regret in her voice. Armand paid very little attention to her and Spinelle paid her the wrong kind of attention. He irritated her. And I, I followed her through the cities of France, hardly ever speaking to her.
"I admire Armand," she said. "He has so much inner strength; he never has any doubts."
"Do you have doubts?"
She put down her glass. The fuming alcohol had brought a little blood to her sallow cheeks.
"They don't want to hear what we just told them. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better to let them live and die in peace."
"And what would you do then?"
A smile crossed her face. "I'd go back and live in the warm countries. That's where I was born. I'd stretch myself out in a hammock and forget everything."
"Well, why not do it?" I said.
"I can't," she replied. "Because I wouldn't really be able to forget. There's too much misery, too much suffering in the world. I'll never be able to just sit back and accept it."
"Even if you were happy?"
"I wouldn't be happy."
In a yellow mirror opposite us, I saw her face, her damp locks of hair under her black hat, her velvety eyes in her weary face.
"In spite of everything, we're doing useful work, aren't we?" she asked.
She looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. "Why don't you ever say what you're thinking?"
"Because I never think anything," I answered.
"That's not true."
"I assure you, I'm incapable of holding an opinion."
"Let's not talk about me," I said.
"On the contrary."
"Words don't have the same meaning for you as they do for me."
"I know. One day I heard you say to Armand that you didn't belong to this world." She looked at my hands and then raised her eyes to my face. "But it isn't true," she said. "Here you are, sitting next to me. We're talking together. You're a man, a man with a strange destiny, but a man of this world."
Her voice had an urgent one —a caress and an appeal. Very far off, in the darkest depths, under the cold ashes and the hardened lava, something trembled. The rough bark of a tree against my cheek, a lilac colored dress disappearing down a path.
"If you want," she said, "I can be your friend."
"You don't understand. No one can understand who I am, what I am."
"Explain it to me."
I shook my head. "You'd better go to bed."
"I don't feel like going to bed."
Like a well-behaved child, her hands were resting on the table, but her nails were scratching the marble. Alone beside me, alone among her comrades, alone in the world, with all that weight of suffering she loaded upon her shoulders.
"You're not happy," she said.
"Well!" she exclaimed with a sudden burst of ardor. "You see! It's perfectly plain that you too belong to the world of men —people can feel sorry for you, can love you..."
Laughing, she breathed in the fragrant scent of the roses and the flowering linden trees. I knew you were unhappy. And I hugged the tree trunk in my arms. Would I become a living man again? Under the cold lava, a warm vapor was trembling. She had loved me for a long time. I knew it.
"One day you'll be dead and I'll forget you," I said. "Doesn't that make friendship impossible?"
"No," she replied. "Even if you forget me, our friendship will have existed. The future could never affect it." She raised her eyes; a look of tenderness flooded her face. "That whole future in which you'll forget me, that past in which I didn't exist, I accept them, they're a part of you. It's you, the real you, who are sitting her together with that future and that past. I've often thought about it and I'd say to myself that time could never separate us if only..." her voice choked up and she finished quickly, "if only you were my friend."
I held out my hand. Because of the strength of her love, despite the past, despite the future, I once more found myself completely present, completely alive for the first time in centuries. I was there, a man loved by a woman, a man with a strange destiny, but a man of this world. I touched her fingers. Only a word and that dead crust would have caved in, the fiery lava of life would have begun flowing again, the world would once more have had a face. There would have been expectations, joys, tears.
"Let me love you," she said very softly.
A few days, a few years, and the she would be lying on a bed with a shriveled face. Colors would all become jumbled together, indistinguishable, the sky would fade, odors would freeze up. You'll forget me. Her face was frozen in the middle of the oval painting. There weren't even words any longer with which to say: "She's not here." Where was she not? I could see no emptiness around me.
"No," I said. "It's useless. Everything is useless."
"Is it because I mean nothing to you?"
I looked at her. She knew I was immortal, had weighed the meaning of that word, and still she loved me. She was able to love an immortal man. Were I still capable of using human words, I would have said, "Of all the women I've ever known, you're the most generous, the most passionate, you're the noblest and the purest." But those words meant nothing to me. Laura was already dead. I withdrew my hand from hers.
"Nothing. You couldn't understand."
She sank back into the leather chair and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She was alone, she was weary. She would grow old, alone and weary, without receiving anything in exchange for the gifts she lavished and which were not even sought from her, fighting for them, without them, against them, doubting them and doubting herself. In my heart, something still trembled —pity. I could have torn her from her present life; there was still enough left of my former wealth to take her to the warm countries. She would stretch herself out in a hammock in the shade of a palm tree and I would tell her I loved her.
She smiled timidly. There was still a little hope in her eyes. And Beatrice was bending her fleshy face over the red and gold manuscript. "I want to make you happy," I had said. And I had lost her more surely than I had lost Antonio. She was smiling. But what reason did I have to prefer her smiles to her tears? There was nothing I could give her. Because I wanted nothing for myself with them, there was nothing I could want for them. I would have had to love her. I did not love her. I wanted nothing.
"Go back to your room," I said. "It's late."
—Simone de Beauvoir, All Men Are Mortal, p. 330