As soon as they had found compatriots in Paris, the refugees received the address of a certain Monsieur Saumony who was responsible, only as an intermediary, to find a buyer and obtain the maximum price for any salable object, if unusual that nature was, however small or large its value.
The Vardikof family, stranded in a slum in the St. Paul district, consisted of five people: the father, a forty-year-old chemist, the mother and three children: two boys, one ten years old, the other twelve years old, – and a girl, Sonia, eighteen years old, a pure marvel of beauty.
The Vardikofs there were part of the well-to-do bourgeoisie. They had expatriated themselves, after having sacrificed everything they possessed that was not concealable, and amassed a fairly large supply of paper money. This viaticum had not been enough, and fine pearls, precious jewels had gradually provided the essential resources for a tragic odyssey in which the unfortunate had faced the worst dangers and endured the worst sufferings.
As the parents were exhausted with fatigue and illness, Sonia, who had learned French, had to take it upon herself to bring Mr. Saumony the last wreck: a heritage jewel, a kind of pendant to which a large price was attributed at the rate of its antiquity.
Grizzled brown, bearded, with an angular face without harshness, of a complaisant impassibility, M. Saumony, dressed in black like an office manager, received in a cabinet with administrative furniture, of a solid luxury, without brilliance. Sitting in a deep armchair that grew or shrunk at will, he had before him, on a vast mahogany table, files, printed financial notes, and also precision instruments, magnifying glasses, compasses, scales. .
When he spoke, his countenance was of an investigator and an inventor, in such a way that he gave hope like a medical celebrity. As the sick man at the end of his strength believes that a miracle from the prince of science will restore him to health, so the needy at the end of his expediency awaited some miraculous rescue from the meticulous intermediary.
He lived on Boulevard Haussmann in a discreet apartment overlooking the courtyard. No exterior sign; his profession marked on cards and repeated by the concierge was a lawyer-expert. A hyphen connected the two words and made them a special term. Mr. Saumony did not belong to the bar, he did not plead in court; he defended the interests of his selling clients vis-à-vis his buying clients.
He answered the call for the entrance bell himself. Carpets kept the silence; a cold light illuminated the anteroom; a long corridor, which one did not enter, contained a mysterious solitude.
Sonia presented herself with decision and announced that she was bringing a gem of great value.
M. Saumony greeted her with the usual look of an official who receives the public – but, when he made her sit down, his eyes took a secret snapshot of her.
He carefully examined the item for sale and his appreciation was pronounced in a tone of unquestionable competence: this item had the characteristic of being old and old-fashioned, but not not old. The precious stones were natural, but not of the kind of precious gems; it was worth just a few hundred francs.
According to the usual effect produced by the all-powerful attitude of Mr. Saumony, Sonia, disappointed and convinced, was not discouraged. She insisted on the much greater help the family needed – by the obscure urge to appeal to a science, a power, a miraculous genius.
She explained that there was a lack of basic necessities: linen and clothes. She herself, Sonia, was currently wearing a borrowed toilet. His father, Mr. Vardikof, would not be able, for several weeks, to provide through his work for the daily existence and finally, supreme admission, from today, the food was provided on credit, – on the sight of the famous pendant.
It was therefore several thousand and not several hundred francs that had to be found, on pain of literally perishing.
M. Saumony repeated: several thousand francs; – without batting an eyelid, simply to weigh, one would have said.
As Sonia looked at him expectantly, he added, supposedly guessing:
– Let’s say five thousand, to clarify.
Sonia, in her turn, repeated calmly:
– Five thousand would be good.
M. Saumony, as a physicist, as an operator who begins a creation of which he has the formula, asked meticulously:
– Your father does not own financial securities, even unlisted? no political documents? no compromising letters?
– No, nothing other than what I bring you.
– Ah! not even papers, not even dangerous testimonies for third parties… And you, in the difficulties of the exodus, – you were not abused?
This question was associated with the idea of third parties likely to be accused – it was quite natural, given the circumstances to which Mr. Saumony was referring, and also given the portrait of Sonia.
The month of June was set ablaze with an oriental sun. Sonia wore a light, dark blue fabric suit, with a half-neckline molding, half-shortened according to fashion.
Perfectly proportioned, neither small nor large, fairly broad in the bust, her waist narrowed down on the curve of her hips. Little hands, little feet, thin wrists, thin ankles, – arms and legs round and swollen, visibly of a smooth and tight grain. Dark gold hair; the complexion of dazzling whiteness softened with pink tones, the black diamond eyes, with long lashes which sagged down, in a moving game, on such features, in their heavenly grace, to the features that one attribute to the images of ‘churches.
She replied with happy vivacity:
– No, no violence, I had the chance to escape pitfalls, abominable attacks.
Mr. Saumony watched her speak, he examined her accent sincerity, as he had examined the antiquity of the pendant.
He nodded favorably at the expertise. Suddenly, Sonia understood. She was silent, she got up, pulling back her chair, erect, combative, her eyes widened, a person accustomed to measuring dangers without losing her head.
Mr. Saumony replied as if specific words had been exchanged. Beside the implied horror, he imposed the practical imagination of the rescue.
– You would tell your parents and those around you that this gem has found a buyer at the expected price of several thousand francs. There would be no loss of esteem for anyone; for dishonor, which is the verdict of the world, does not exist if the world ignores the truth. Whereas, on the contrary, the people who gave your father credit on this false value would believe in dishonesty if you had only the real price to declare.
A long silence. Then Sonia moved her forehead, a fierce glow signified:
– When? How? ‘Or’ What?
Certain market must be executed as quickly as possible. The assignee cannot continue his ordinary life with the prospect of the pending transaction. She can be guessed by those close to her, she can change her will, – she can die …
Mr. Saumony specified:
– Come here tomorrow at five o’clock to find the final answer.
He purposely used this ambiguous formula of “seeking the definitive answer”; he seemed to leave a hazard, thus making the terrible prospect bearable.
Instead of receiving Sonia, as on the previous day, in her study which overlooked the anteroom, M. Saumony led her to the end of the corridor in a small living room with heavy curtains.
– You just have to sit down and wait.
He left her alone, the door closed, without further explanation.
Sonia, motionless in the middle of the room, saw that it contained various pieces of furniture, but only one seat: a green sofa with red cushions and suddenly, in the daylight, near the window, something struck her sight: on a pedestal table, banknotes, overtaking each other, to be counted without being touched, one, two, three, four, five.
The shock made Sonia take a step back: what? same here? It wasn’t just the answer it was about hearing!
But immediately, she somehow felt against her back, the house preventing her from backing up. The house she had just left: her mother had kissed her gravely, her brothers had smiled at her like prisoners waiting for shoes to come out, her father was dozing in a bad armchair, near the table with an ordinance lying around of doctor not brought to the pharmacist.
Then she advanced towards the pedestal table, put her reticule on the banknotes and went to sit down, like a nihilist who watches for the moment of committing an attack: all sensitivity stopped by the physical means of squeezing the jaws and fixing the void.
Almost immediately the door was opened by a well-dressed gentleman, not young, the age of a father. He approached, speaking in a low, hesitant voice, with carnivorous smiles. Sonia pretended not to understand French; besides, a buzzing pounded his temples and prevented him from perceiving all the syllables of the words.
The worst abomination was the duration of the drama. The savage effort of the will had kept her mute and disarmed, but a convulsive tremor had made her a lively character all the same. Her executioner had given caressing responses to the thrills – until this final hallucination: they wanted to stab her parents, she made them a bulwark with her body; despite the pain, she wouldn’t scream …
But then, no prostration, no weakness or despair.
Sonia had relived one of those vicissitudes of the exodus where, at night, we had crossed a space exposed to the fire of the sentries. Without moaning, without slowing down, we had torn ourselves against the rough edges of the forest, we were stuck in the mud of the potholes. The worst pain had been the anxiety, the horrible length of time, – and once the goal was reached, the bruises and stains had sort of been forgotten. There was such a distance between the danger of being killed and just being bruised and sullied, that the relief of the rescue had covered every other sensation. As for the alleged crime of escape, which we had committed – we were no longer even aware of it.
The torturer disappeared, Sonia, an expert fugitive, had slipped noiselessly into the corridor and found the exit door. In the street, she had the impression of finding free space, the movement of life, which she had believed lost, from which she had been separated for an infinite time: we were saved; so too bad, she was breathing, the light from the sky was still good to taste.
At home, of course, we had watched how she entered: but only to guess if she brought back a correct answer and really all we saw was her reticule presented to her mother and the five thousand-franc notes it contained. . Everyone had laughed, Sonia herself: the laughter of a victim in revolt against the world.
At the end of a month, Sonia came back, unbeknownst to her parents, to ask for Mr. Saumony: her father’s health had not yet been restored, – for the sake of the family, it would again be necessary to obtain several thousand francs.
Sonia would have a job in a bank, next week she would make the house believe that she was granted the advance of several months’ salary; above all, she would pay part of the debts in secret, so that credit could continue in the neighborhood.
Instead of presenting, in her hands, some salable object – by the tragic misery of her attitude, she presented the beauty of a marble statue.
Mr. Saumony realized and developed an appropriate response.
The great esteem he enjoyed in the best of society was that he had never deceived anyone – the deception was it indistinguishable, or even more advantageous to the client than the reality.
Now, Sonia no longer had her innocence, the only thing that was worth several thousand francs – and he, M. Saumony, was not the man to conceal this lack of value.
So, without deception, we came down to an estimate of a few hundred francs.
Why? since the statue, in its design, had lost nothing of its beauty.
Why? because beauty without attributes did not exceed a certain rate.
In order for a great demand to be met, the real object of the market had to be the sacrilege to be committed .
Sacrilege! imaginary value and yet irresistible and superior to any positive value. However, with a young girl, sacrilege only existed once.
See the supreme influence of the imagination: Sonia, such as she was, was not worth a woman much less attractive, but chained by the sanctity of marriage. A married woman had the advantage of offering the sacrilege constantly renewed.
Despite this obvious demonstration, Sonia, motionless, stuck in her savage heroism, repeated in an almost threatening tone: I don’t want to let my parents die.
The fact that people stubbornly believed in his supernatural power indeed led Mr. Saumony to prove that he always had some resource in reserve.
“There is no unsolvable problem,” he said thoughtfully. Let us proceed by trial and error.
“The present value is, suppose, five hundred francs, and we are looking for five thousand. So the solution is five hundred multiplied by ten.
“We refuse to make ten sales together, but we can find ten subscribers for one sale: it’s called a raffle.
Sonia had a frightful upper body:
– Huh? what designation…?
Mr. Saumony reassured her:
– The designation will be as anonymous as possible, while being understandable at a glance and rather flattering than degrading: an art object.
“This process, moreover, must be indifferent to you, it does not change your resolution – it does not make it more painful; I could have used it without telling you, and you should only focus on the providential result.
The ten raffle tickets were easily placed in a circle of financial notables.
The winner was a sixty-year-old anxious not to shorten his life by any excess.
My faith, he gave the note to his nephew, with whom he was quite free on the chapter of gallant things.
He had his theory on the subject of natural laws, – and – by the same concern which made him moderate by reason of his age – he had thought that Roland, at the approach of the majority, should not thwart nature by an absurd wisdom.
His generosity as an uncle with an inheritance was always accompanied by some advising joke:
– Here, you must have florist’s and jeweler’s notes to pay.
This time, he quickly explained to her that the raffle ticket was not nominative. It was an entry – or a receipt – whereby the bearer had to, at an address and time indicated, take possession of the art object won, with no other formality than the preliminary compliments. He amused himself by the double meaning of the expression to take possession.
Roland had, at twenty, a physical elegance developed by sports – tall, broad shouldered, slim in build, blond hair thrown back, a hint of mustache, intelligent forehead, gentle eyes, he was, in his face, of the Norman-Parisian type: a handsome boy, but who in short resembled many of his comrades from the School of Law.
Yet he had an advantage over them, a personal pleasure: an air of true youth, naive, kind, family, the air (as they say) “of having a character younger than his age” – an air of adolescent who still has the qualities, feelings, innocence of a child.
The fact that he had obeyed nature early, according to his uncle’s wish, had at least had the happy result of preventing his imagination from becoming perverted. And the very fact of having easily known venal love had greatly diminished the importance of love for him.
M. Saumony, a psychologist and an honest businessman who demands that we trust him, had translated for those concerned the word: art object, simply by: a woman, – with the gesture of posing a wolf on a face.
And indeed, the very mystery, the very absence of any precision, had contributed to the immediate placement of the notes – one was sure to have something rare, the reserved surprise offered an added attraction.
Roland was particularly fond: one has recourse to the raffle for an object which is not of ordinary sale, thus, “a woman” it did not mean a courtesan, and it did not mean either an ignorant of the love.
He convinced himself that his dream, not yet satisfied, would finally come true: that of hugging a married woman belonging to a certain class.
Since the intermediary had observed such discretion, it could only be a too coquettish bourgeois who had debts without her husband’s knowledge.
As at the time of the first sacrifice, Sonia was seated in the small living room with the red and green divan – like the first time, she was preparing, in fierce insensitivity, to let any visitor approach her in violation of the law. human respect, – and she struggled to control an indomitable trembling, she struggled to fix, through the eyes of thought, the dear ones who were in pain at home.
Roland opened the door with a beginner’s emotion: this “lady” would undoubtedly be intimidating; how to be neither brutal nor ridiculous? Until then, he had needed little initiative with his complacent partners.
He was very astonished: the person who was waiting did not have the appearance of a married woman – (this word, he did not know why, in his mind evoked a woman of thirty). Except for the petrified pallor, the stranger, by her youth, by her midinette-like clothing, reminded her of certain previous acquisitions.
He appreciated, however, instantly: the stranger was a young person, not new, (a woman) – but unprofessional and impressively beautiful. The intermediary had not deceived his people, – and the raffle was justified, after all.
He did not experience the dreaded intimidation, he only felt stilted by “the unusual and the excessive desirable.” However, he knew how to affect a rather gallant flippancy:
– Mademoiselle, I am the favored gods, I am the happy mortal authorized to admire the divinity…
Sonia, now acquainted with male horror, had promised herself a wilder resignation than the first time, – she had resolved to reduce to a minimum the dreadful memory to take away – for example, not to open her eyes completely, not even to look at his executioner.
But the condemned man, whatever his courage, cannot help but look at the preparation of the torture.
Sonia could not help moving her eyes towards the visitor and even – against her resolution – to open them wider than she had done the first time.
The confused impression of an error seized her first of all: she expected to see “a gentleman”, similar in age, in corpulence, to the author of the virginal rape – as if lovers of fresh flesh should be all of the same model, both banal and recognizable.
She let Roland walk forward, without taking his eyes off him, without appearing to have heard her introductory sentence – but when, necessarily, according to the director’s invitation – he sat down next to her, when her seated at she was stirred by the elasticity of the divan – she jumped up, stepped aside, horrified, threatening, ready to defend herself, and she cried:
– No! go away…! I do not want…! go away!
The physical and spiritual revolt that she had not felt frantic enough to save her virginity – this mad, furious, unstoppable revolt was now taking place: retraction of the whole being, of the soul, of the intimate substance, – frenzied retraction of instinct, as at the licking of devouring flames.
And too bad for the next day! so much the worse for the cruel, for the hideous martyrdom of misery! Too bad for the catastrophe the family would engulf itself in: real death, rather than the kind of death that threatened it now.
Roland, surprised, got up; obviously they weren’t doing a comedy to get some extra gratuity. He stayed where he was and only found a protest of his good faith:
– Allow me, I thought… I was told… and Mr. Saumony brought me to the door.
Sonia took another step back, made more revolted:
– Yes, but I give up… We will return the money… you will say that I refused… that I no longer wanted…
At the prospect of claiming, of declaring the disappointment, Roland’s self-esteem felt hurt:
– I will say… indeed, I will have to say… But how is it?… A convention existed, without exception announced… this convention held until my arrival, since you were there…
A gesticulation of horror:
– It’s me, who asks: well?
New gesticulation accompanied by an increasingly quivering exclamation:
– Well, not you!… Not you!… Leave me!… Do not approach me!…
The mortal cold that a man experiences in the face of a failure which forces him to doubt his dearest intimate worth – in the face of a failure which reaches his very vital sensibility. This notion entered Roland in the form of a thrill: so, anyone, but not me? So can I sound so unfriendly? so obnoxious?
For a long moment he remained silent, motionless. But now Sonia was standing, not her eyes fleeing with repulsion, disgust – but fascinated, appalled, her eyes widened, her eyes as if they were enclosing her whole person in a wrestling embrace.
Then, suddenly, Roland resuscitated; a warm influx lit the flash of his thought:
– What would be tolerable for anyone, is not tolerable for me, because I am different from the others, I am above, I am better… I exceed the tolerable forecast… I am impressive beyond what the personality of others can tolerate. Parbleu! a certain embarrassment of self-esteem, a certain modesty of imagination, I have it only in front of such a comrade of high intellectual value.
With a shift of his forehead, in spite of himself, he assured himself, in the mirror, of his incomparable presence and the reflection continued:
– If my uncle had wanted to take advantage of the ticket? From my uncle, the monstrosity would not have exceeded the bearable!
Suddenly, he almost exclaimed aloud, it was a burst of dazzling light:
– Ah! ah!… it’s that… it’s that I, I am the same age as her!…
Then this logic burst, dazzling:
– The attack would become revolting beyond all possibility, because of our youth like this… ah! ah!… there is human equivalence…
An outbreak was taking place in him, he unconsciously murmured:
– I understand.
You see, he was there with his dignity as a man , she was there with her dignity as a woman . The expression heard from his uncle, “a woman”, changed meaning; she assumed immense grandeur: “a woman”, a complete human individuality, with the highest attributes of consciousness.
He received the total revelation of the feminine : the revelation of the reserved, the respectable, the sacred of the other sex.
Until then, at the time of his romantic purchases, he had never thought of either his mother or his sisters. As if a burst of religious sentiment were replacing his manly capacity, he threw himself back to utter in a timid voice:
– I’m leaving… You are right to refuse… And I won’t say anything… You are left… I’m going… sorry…
His face as a still harmless boy, his voice of a little boy who still believes in maternal reign, one could perceive that he felt the same emotion as Sonia, about their common human resemblance.
Then, seeing him step back, move towards the door, – the heroic, the nihilist who had not yet cried for the miserable fate of the family, nor for her miserable fate to herself, – the fierce one who had not cried at the worst pains, at the worst outrage, – began to cry according to his age, according to his complexion, according to his nature as a young girl. Roland had pronounced so well: pardon, – that he had, as it were, put an end to the wickedness of the world – then revolt gave way to self-pity.
Roland felt that there was still some brutality in his departure, that there was a dreadful allusion in these words: “you are quit” – he too, he is moved according to his age.
You know, like two unhappy children, two children who are afraid or who have grief, embrace each other with the same heart?
– Do you want us to kiss brother and sister?
Sonia raised her forehead.
And, sensation from lips to cheeks, sensation of souls brought together, it was true: as a brother and sister.