Femme Fatale (Penguin little black classics #15)

After a while in a very gentle voice he asked, ‘Would you like to leave now? We’ll be better off in the boat.’ ‘All right my pet,’ she said. Awash with forgiveness and with tears still in his eyes he held her two hands tightly and helped her on board. Basking in the warmth of the afternoon they rowed upstream again past the willows and the grass-covered banks. When they reached Le Grillon once more it was not yet six, so, leaving their skiff, they set off on foot towards Bezons across the meadows and past the high poplars bordering the banks. The wide hayfields waiting to be harvested were full of flowers. The sinking sun cast a mantle of russet light over all and in the gentle warmth of the day’s end the fragrance of the grass wafted in on them mingling with the damp smells of the river and filling the air with easy languor and an atmosphere of blessed well-being. He felt soft and unresistant, in communion with the calm splendour of the evening and with the vague, mysterious thrill of life itself. He felt in tune with the all-embracing poetry of the moment in which plants and all that surrounded him revealed themselves to his senses at this lovely restful and reflective time of day. He was sensitive to it all but she appeared totally unaffected. They were walking side by side when suddenly, bored by the silence, she began to sing.

Despite himself Paul was enchanted by the intoxicating loveliness of the night. It penetrated the terrible anguish he was feeling and stirred in his heart a fierce sense of irony. He longed with all his gentle and idealistic soul for a faithful woman to worship – someone in whose arms he could express all his love and tenderness as well as his passion.

The fact was that despite himself, without knowing why or how it had happened and very much against his better judgement, he had fallen hopelessly in love. He had fallen as if into some deep and muddy hole. By nature he was a delicate and sensitive soul. He had had ideals and dreamed of an exquisite and passionate affair. And now he had fallen for this little cricket of a creature. She was as stupid as every other woman and not even pretty to make up for it. Skinny and foul-tempered, she had taken possession of him entirely from tip to toe, body and soul. He had fallen under the omnipotent and mysterious spell of the female. He was overwhelmed by this colossal force of unknown origin, the demon in the flesh capable of hurling the most rational man in the world at the feet of a worthless harlot. There was no way he could explain its fatal and total power.

The four had rented a riverside cottage and lived together there as two couples. Their vice was public, official and perfectly obvious to all. It was referred to quite naturally as something entirely normal. There were rumours about jealous scenes that took place there and about the various actresses and other famous women who frequented the little cottage near the water’s edge. One neighbour, scandalized by the goings-on, alerted the police at one stage and an inspector accompanied by one of his men came to make enquiries. It was a delicate mission: there was nothing the women could be prosecuted for, least of all prostitution. The inspector was deeply puzzled and could not understand what these alleged misdemeanours could possibly be. He asked a whole lot of pointless questions, compiled a lengthy report and dismissed the charges out of hand. The joke spread as far as Saint-Germain.

The July sun blazed in the middle of the sky and the atmosphere was gay and carefree, while in the windless air not a leaf stirred in the poplars and willows lining the banks of the river. In the distance ahead, the conspicuous bulk of Mont-Valérien loomed, rearing the ramparts of its fortifications in the glare of the sun. On the right, the gentle slopes of Louveciennes, following the curve of the river, formed a semi-circle within which could be glimpsed, through the dense and shady greenery of their spacious lawns, the white-painted walls of weekend retreats. On the land adjoining La Grenouillère strollers were sauntering under the gigantic trees which help to make this part of the island one of the most delightful parks imaginable. Busty women with peroxided hair and nipped-in waists could be seen, made up to the nines with blood red lips and black-kohled eyes. Tightly laced into their garish dresses they trailed in all their vulgar glory over the fresh green grass. They were accompanied by men whose fashion-plate accessories, light gloves, patent-leather boots, canes as slender as threads and absurd monocles made them look like complete idiots.