the rest of sartre’s the age of reason, chapter one

"I’ve only got to look at you to see that you’re born unlucky—you’re the sort that upsets glasses, and smashes mirrors. And women trust you. Well, they get what they deserve."

the_age_of_reason_jean_paul_sartre_.jpg image by romanowt13

‘Marcelle,’ said he.

She did not answer: there was a hard look in her eyes: and then she sat up abruptly. He sat down once more on the edge of the bed, irked by his own nakedness.

‘You must now tell me what’s the matter.’

‘There’s nothing the matter,’ she said, in a toneless voice.

‘Yes, there is,’ he said affectionately. ‘There’s something on your mind. Marcelle, didn’t we agree to be quite frank with each other?’

‘You can’t do anything about it, and it will only upset you.’

He stroked her hair lightly. ‘Never mind, tell me all the same.’

‘Well, it’s happened.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘It has happened.’

Mathieu made a wry face.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Quite sure. You know I never get the wind up: I’m two months late.’

‘Hell!’ said Mathieu.

And he thought: ‘She ought to have told me at least three weeks ago.’ He felt he must do something with his hands—fill his pipe, for instance: but his pipe was in the cupboard with his jacket. He took a cigarette from the night-table and put it down again.

‘There, now you know what’s the matter,’ said Marcelle. ‘And what’s to be done?’

‘Well—I suppose one gets rid of it, eh?’

‘Right. I’ve got an address,’ said Marcelle.

‘Who gave it to you?’

‘Andrée. She’s been there.’

‘That’s the old woman who messed her up last year, isn’t it? Why, it was six months before she was well again. I won’t allow that.’

‘So you want to be a father?’

She drew back, and sat down a little way off Mathieu. There was a hard look in her eyes, but it wasn’t a masculine look. She had laid her hands flat on her thighs, her arms looked like the twin handles of an earthenware jar. Mathieu noticed that her face had grown grey. The air was pink and sickly – it smelt and tasted pink: her face was grey and set, and she looked as though she were trying to stifle a cough.

‘Wait,’ said Mathieu, ‘you’ve rather sprung this on me: we must think.’

Marcelle’s hands began to quiver: and shesaid with sudden vehemence: ‘I don’t want you to think—it’s not for you to think.’

She had turned her head towards him and was looking at him. She looked at Mathieu’s neck, shoulders, and hips, and then lower down, with an air of astonishment. Mathieu blushed violently and set his legs together.

‘You can’t do anything,’ repeated Marcelle. And she added with painful irony: ‘It’s a woman’s business now.’

Her mouth snapped out the last words: a varnished mauve-tinted mouth, like a crimson insect intent upon devouring that ashen visage. ‘She’s feeling humiliated,’ thought Mathieu, ‘she hates me.’ He felt sick. The room seemed suddenly cleared of its pink haze: there were great blank spaces between the objects it contained. And Mathieu thought: ‘It is I who have done this to her!’ The lamp, the mirror with its leaden reflections, the clock on the mantelpiece, the armchair, the half-opened wardrobe, suddenly appeared to him like pitiless mechanisms, adrift and pursuing their tenuous existences in the void, rigidly insistent, like the underside of a gramophone record obstinately grinding out its tune. Mathieu shook himself, but could not detach himself from that sinister, raucous world. Marcelle had not moved, she was still looking at Mathieu’s naked body, and the guilty flower that lay so delicately on his thighs with a bland air of innocence. He knew she wanted to scream and sob but she would not, for fear of waking Mme Duffet. He gripped Marcelle round the waist and drew her towards him. She collapsed on to his shoulder, sobbed a little, but she did not cry. It was all that she could allow herself: a rainless storm.

When she raised her head, she was calmer. And she said, in an emphatic tone: ‘Forgive me, darling, I needed to explode. I’ve been holding myself in all day. I’m not blaming you, of course.’

‘Quite natural,’ said Mathieu. ‘I feel bad about this. It’s the first time… O Lord, what a mess. I’ve done this deed, and it’s you that have to pay. Well, it’s happened, and that’s that. Look here, who is this old woman, and where does she live?’

‘Twenty-four Rue Morère. I’m told she’s an odd old party.’

‘I believe you. Are you going to say that Andrée sent you?’

‘Yes. She only charges four hundred francs. I’m told that’s absurdly cheap,’ said Marcelle, in a suddenly even tone.

‘Yes, I realize that,’ said Mathieu bitterly. ‘In short it’s a bargain.’

He felt as awkward as a newly accepted suitor. A tall awkward fellow, completely naked, who had done something he should not, and was smiling amiably, in the hope he might be overlooked. But it wasn’t possible; she saw his white, sinewy, stocky thighs, his complacent and uncompromising nudity. It was a grotesque nightmare. ‘If I were her, I should want to get my nails into all that meat.’ And he said: ‘That’s just exactly what worries me: she doesn’t charge enough.’

‘My dear,’ said Marcelle, ‘it’s lucky she asks so little: as it happens, I’ve got the four hundred francs. They were earmarked for my dressmaker, but she’ll wait. And,’ she went on emphatically, ‘I’m perfectly certain I shall be looked after just as well as in one of those discreet clinics where they charge you four thousand francs as soon as look at you. Anyhow, we can’t help ourselves.’

‘No, we can’t help ourselves,’ repeated Mathieu. ‘When will you go?’

‘Tomorrow, about midnight. I gather she only sees people at night. Rather a scream, isn’t it? I think she’s a bit cracked myself, but it suits me all right, on Mother’s account. She keeps a draper’s shop in the daytime: and she hardly ever sleeps. You go in by a yard, and you see a light under a door—that’s where it is.’

‘Right,’ said Mathieu. ‘I’ll go.’

Marcelle eyed him in amazement.

‘Are you crazy? She’ll shut the door in your face, she’ll take you for a policeman.’

‘I shall go,’ repeated Mathieu.

‘But why? What will you say to her?’

‘I want to get a notion of what sort of place it is. If I don’t like it, you shan’t go. I won’t have you messed up by some old harridan. I’ll say that I’ve come from Andrée, that I’ve got a girl friend who’s in trouble, but down with influenza at the moment—something of that kind.’

‘But where shall I go if it won’t do?’

‘We’ve got a few days to turn round in, haven’t we? I’ll go and see Sarah tomorrow, she’s sure to know somebody. They didn’t want any children at first, you remember.’

Marcelle’s excitement subsided a little, and she stroked his neck.

‘You’re being very nice to me, darling. I’m not quite sure what you’re up to, but I understand that you want to do something: perhaps you’d like her to operate on you instead of me?’ She clasped her lovely arms round his neck, and added in a tone of comic resignation: ‘Anyone recommended by Sarah is sure to be a Yid.’

Mathieu kissed her, and she dimpled all over.

‘Darling,’ she said. ‘O darling!’

‘Take off your vest’

She obeyed, he tipped her backwards on to the bed, and began to caress her breasts. He loved their taut, leathery nipples, each in its ring of raised, red flesh. Marcelle sighed, with eyes closed, passionate and eager. But her eyelids were contracted. The dread thing lingered, laid like a damp hand on Mathieu. Then, suddenly, the thought came into Mathieu’s mind: ‘She’s pregnant.’ He sat up, his head still buzzing with a shrill refrain.

‘Look here, Marcelle, it’s no good today. We’re both of us too nervy. I’m sorry.’

Marcelle uttered a sleepy little grunt, then got up abruptly and began to rumple her hair with both hands.

‘Just as you like,’ she said coldly. Then she added, more amiably: ‘As a matter of fact you’re right, we’re too nervy. I wanted you to love me, but I was a bit frightened.’

‘Alas,’ said Mathieu, ‘the deed is done, we have nothing more to fear.’

‘I know, but I wasn’t thinking sensibly. I don’t know how to tell you: but I’m rather afraid of you, darling.’

Mathieu got up.

‘Good. Well then, I’ll go and see this old woman.’

‘Yes. And you might telephone me tomorrow and tell me what you thought of her.’

‘Can’t I see you tomorrow evening? That would be simpler.’

‘No, not tomorrow evening. The day after, if you like.’

Mathieu had put on his shirt and trousers. He kissed Marcelle on the eyes.

‘You aren’t angry with me?’

‘It isn’t your fault. It’s the first time in seven years, you needn’t blame yourself. And you aren’t sick of me, I hope?’

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘Well, I’m getting rather sick of myself, to tell the truth; I feel like a great heap of dough.’

‘My darling,’ said Mathieu, ‘my poor darling. It will all be put right in a week, I promise you.’

He opened the door noiselessly, and glided out, holding his shoes in his hand. On the landing he turned. Marcelle was still sitting on the bed. She smiled at him, but Mathieu had the feeling that she bore him a grudge.

The tension in his set eyes was now released, and they revolved with normal ease and freedom in their orbits: she was no longer looking at him, and he owed her no account of his expression. Concealed by his dark garments and the night, his guilty flesh had found its needed shelter, it was gradually recovering its native warmth and innocence, and began to expand beneath its covering fabrics;  the oilcan, how on earth was he going to remember to bring the oilcan the day after tomorrow? He was alone.

He stopped, transfixed: it wasn’t true, he wasn’t alone. Marcelle had not let him go: she was thinking of him, and this was what she thought: ‘The dirty dog, he’s let me down.’ It was no use striding along the dark, deserted street, anonymous, enveloped in his garments—he could not escape her. Marcelle’s consciousness remained, full of woe and lamentation, and Mathieu had not left her: he was there, in the pink room, naked and defenceless against that crass transparency, so much more baffling than a look. ‘Only once,’ he said savagely to himself, and he repeated in an undertone, to convince Marcelle: ‘once in seven years.’ Marcelle refused to be convinced; she remained in the room, and was thinkingof Mathieu. It was intolerable to be judged, and hated, away back in that room, and in silence. Without power to defend himself, or even to hide his belly with his hands. If only, in the same second, he had been able to exist for others with the same intensity… But Jacques and Odette were asleep. Daniel was drunk or in a stupor. Ivich never remembered people when they were not there. Boris perhaps… But Boris’s consciousness was no more than a dim flicker, it could not contend against that savage, stark lucidity that fascinated Mathieu from a distance. Night had engulfed most human consciousnesses: Mathieu was alone with Marcelle in the night, just the two of them.

There was a light at Camus’s place. The landlord was stacking the chairs: the waitress was fixing a wooden shutter against one side of the double door. Mathieu pushed open the other side and went in. He felt the need of being seen. Just to be seen. He planted his elbows on the counter.

‘Good evening, everybody.’

The landlord saw him. There was also a bus-conductor, drinking an absinthe, his cap pulled down over his eyes. Two kindly, casual consciousnesses. The conductor jerked his cap back, and looked at Mathieu. Marcelle’s consciousness released him, and dissolved into the night.

‘Give me a beer.’

‘You’re quite a stranger,’ said the landlord.

‘It isn’t for want of being thirsty.’

‘Yes, it’s thirsty weather,’ said the bus-conductor. ‘It might be mid-summer.’

They fell silent. The landlord went on rinsing glasses, the conductor whistled to himself. Mathieu felt at ease because they looked at him from time to time. He saw his head in the glass, a ghastly globe emerging from a sea of silver: at Camus’s, one always had the feeling that it was four in the morning, which was an effect of the light, a silvered haze that strained the eyes, and bleached the drinkers’ faces, hands, and thoughts. He drank: and he thought: ‘She’s pregnant. It’s fantastic. I can’t feel it’s true.’ It seemed to him shocking and grotesque, like the sight of an old man kissing an old woman on the lips: after seven years that sort of thing shouldn’t happen; ‘She’s pregnant’—there was a little, vitreous tide within her, slowly swelling into the semblance of an eye. ‘It’s opening out among all the muck inside her belly, it’s alive.’ He saw a long pin moving hesitantly forward in the half-darkness: there was a muffled sound, the eye cracked and burst: nothing was left but an opaque, dry membrane. ‘She’ll go to that old woman: she’ll get herself messed up.’ He felt venomous. ‘All right, let her go.’ He shook himself: these were bleak thoughts, the thoughts of four o’clock in the morning.

‘Good night.’

He paid and went.

‘What did I do?’ He walked slowly, trying to remember. ‘Two months ago… ‘ He couldn’t remember anything. ‘Yes, it must have been the day after the Easter holidays. He had taken Marcelle in his arms, as usual, in affection no doubt, rather than with any feeling of desire; and now… he’d got stung. A baby. I meant to give her pleasure, and I’ve given her a baby. I didn’t understand what I was doing. Neither in destroying nor in creating life did I know what I was doing.’ He laughed a short, dry laugh. ‘And what about the others? Those who have solemnly decided to become fathers, and feel progenitively inclined when they look at their wives’ bodies—do they understand any more than I do? They go blindly on—three flicks of a duck’s tail. What follows is a gelatinous job done in a dark room, like photography. They have no part in it.’ He entered a yard and saw a light under a door. ‘It’s here.’ He felt ashamed.

Mathieu knocked.

‘What is it?’ said a voice.

‘I want to speak to you.’

‘This isn’t a time to visit people.’

‘I have a message from Andrée Besnier.’

The door opened slightly. Mathieu saw a wisp of yellow hair and a large nose.

‘What do you want? Don’t try to pull any police stuff on me, it’s no good, everything’s in order here. I can have the light on all night if I like. If you’re an inspector, show me your card.’

‘I’m not from the police,’ said Mathieu. ‘I’m in a fix. And I was given your name.’

‘Come in.’

Mathieu went in. The old woman was wearing trousers, and a blouse with a zip fastener. She was very thin, and her eyes were set and hard.

‘You know Andrée Besnier?’

She eyed him grimly.

‘Yes,’ said Mathieu. ‘She came to see you last year about Christmas-time because she was in trouble: she was rather ill, and you came four times to give her treatment.’


Mathieu looked at the old woman’s hands. They were a man’s hands, a strangler’s hands: furrowed, cracked, with broken nails, and black with scars and gashes. On the first joint of the left thumb, there were some purple warts, and a large black scab. Mathieu shuddered as he thought of Marcelle’s soft brown flesh.

‘I’ve not come on her account,’ he said. ‘I’ve come for one of her friends.’

The old woman laughed drily: ‘It’s the first time that a man has had the cheek to turn up on my doorstep. I won’t have any dealings with men, let me tell you that.’

The room was dirty and in disorder. There were boxes everywhere, and straw on the tiled floor. On a table Mathieu noticed a bottle of rum and a half-filled glass.

‘I’ve come because my friend sent me. She can’t come today, and she asked me to fix up a date.’

At the other end of the room a door stood half open. Mathieu could have sworn there was someone behind that door.

‘Poor kids,’ said the old woman. ‘They’re too silly. I’ve only got to look at you to see that you’re born unlucky—you’re the sort that upsets glasses, and smashes mirrors. And women trust you. Well, they get what they deserve.’

Mathieu remained polite.

‘I should have liked to see where you operate.’

The old woman flung him a baleful and suspicious look.

‘Look here! Who told you that I operate? What are you talking about? Mind your own business. If your friend wants to see me, let her come herself. I won’t deal with anyone else. Youwant to make inquiries, do you? Did she make any inquiries before she got into your grip? You’ve had an accident. All right. Then let us hope I shall be better at my job than you were at yours—and that’s all I have to say. Good night.’

‘Good night, Madame,’ said Mathieu.

He went out with a sense of deliverance. He turned and walked slowly towards the Avenue d’Orléans: for the first time since he had left her, he could think of Marcelle without pain, without horror, and with a sort of tender melancholy: ‘I’ll go and see Sarah tomorrow,’ he said to himself.

“yes—you want to be free. absolutely free. it’s your vice.”

The Age of Reason (L’âge de raison) is the first novel of Jean Paul Sartre’s trilogy The Roads to Freedom (Les chemins de la liberté). Set in bohemian Paris in the late 1930s, the novel recounts an eventful two-day period in the life of Matthieu Delarue, a philosophy lecturer, who is trying to raise 4,000 francs to pay for his girlfriend’s illegal abortion. Concerned with Sartre’s conception of freedom as the ultimate aim of human existence, the novel presents detailed accountings of the characters’ psychologies as they are forced to make significant decisions in their lives.

Jean-Paul Sartre

The Age of Reason


Book I of The Roads to Freedom trilogy



First published in 1945




Half-way down the Rue Vercingétorix, a tall man seized Mathieu by the arm: a policeman was patrolling the opposite pavement.

‘Can you spare me a franc or two? I’m hungry.’

His eyes were close-set, his lips were thick, and he smelt of drink.

‘You mean you’re thirsty?’ asked Mathieu.

‘No: I’m hungry, and that’s God’s truth.’

Mathieu found a five-franc piece in his pocket.

‘I don’t care which you are; it’s none of my business,’ he said: and gave him the five francs.

‘You’re a good sort,’ said the man, leaning against the wall ‘And now I’d like to wish you something in return. Something you’ll be really glad to have. What shall it be?’

They both pondered: then Mathieu said: ‘Whatever you like.’

‘Well. I wish you good luck. There!’

He laughed triumphantly. Mathieu observed the policeman strolling towards them, and felt sorry for the man.

‘Right,’ said he. ‘So long.’

He was about to pass on, when the man clutched him: ‘Good luck isn’t enough,’ he said in a sodden voice: ‘not nearly enough.’

‘Well, what then?’

‘I’d like to give you something…’

‘I’ll have you locked up for begging,’ said the policeman. He was a fresh-faced, youthful officer, and he tried to assume a stern demeanour.

‘You’ve been pestering the passers-by for the last half-hour,’ he added, but there was no menace in his voice.

‘He wasn’t begging,’ said Mathieu sharply, ‘we were having a little talk.’

The policeman shrugged his shoulders, and walked on. The man was swaying rather precariously: he did not even seem to have seen the policeman.

‘I know what I’ll give you. I’ll give you a Madrid stamp.’

He produced from his pocket a rectangular bit of green card, and handed it to Mathieu. Mathieu read: ‘C.N.T. Diario Confederal. Ejempteres 2. France. Anarcho-Syndicalist Committee, 41 Rue de Belleville, Paris II.’ Beneath the address there was a stamp. It too was green, and bore the postmark—Madrid. Mathieu reached out a hand: ‘Thanks very much.’

‘Ah, but look…’ said the man angrily. ‘It’s… it’s Madrid.’

Mathieu looked at him: the man seemed excited, and was plainly struggling to express what was in his mind. He gave it up, and merely said: ‘Madrid.’


‘I wanted to get there, and that’s the truth. But it couldn’t be fixed.’

A gloomy look came over his face, and he said: ‘Wait a moment,’ and he slid a finger over the stamp.

‘All right. You can have it.’ ‘Thanks.’

Mathieu began to walk on, but the man shouted after him.

‘Well?’ said Mathieu. The man was holding up the five-franc piece.

‘Some guy has just slipped me a five-franc piece. I’ll stand you a rum.’

‘Not this evening.’

Mathieu moved off with a vague sense of regret. There had been a time in his life when he had strolled about the city and haunted bars in any sort of company, with anyone who cared to ask him. Now it was all over: that game never paid. The fellow had looked decent enough. He had wanted to fight in Spain. Mathieu quickened his step, and he thought irritably: ‘Anyway, we hadn’t anything to talk about. He took the green card out of his pocket. ‘It comes from Madrid, but it isn’t addressed to him. Somebody must have passed it on to him. He kept on fingering it before giving it to me, just because it came from Madrid.’ He recalled the man’s face, and the look with which he had eyed the stamp: an oddly ardent look. Mathieu in his turn eyed the stamp as he walked on, and then put the bit of cardboard back in his pocket. A railway engine whistled, and Mathieu thought: ‘I’m getting old.’

It was twenty-five minutes past ten: Mathieu was before his time. Without stopping, without even turning his he passed the little blue house. But he looked at it out of the corner of his eye. All the windows were dark except in Madame Duffet’s room. Marcelle hadn’t yet had time to open the outer door: she was leaning over her mother, and those masculine hands of hers were tucking her up into the great testered bed. Mathieu still felt gloomy, the thought in his mind was: ‘Five hundred francs until the 29th—thirty francs a day, or rather less. How shall I manage?’ He swung round and retraced his steps.

The light had gone out in Madame Duffet’s room. In a moment or two the light went up in Marcelle’s window. Mathieu crossed the road, and slipped past the grocer’s shop, trying to prevent his new shoes from squeaking. The door was ajar: he pushed it very gently and it creaked. ‘I’ll bring my oilcan on Wednesday and drop a little oil into the hinges.’ He went in, closed the door, and took his shoes off in the darkness. The stairs creaked faintly: Mathieu walked cautiously upstairs, shoes in hand, testing each step with his toe before putting his foot down. ‘What a game,’ he thought.

Marcelle opened her door before he had reached the landing. A pink iris-scented haze from her room pervaded the staircase. She was wearing her green chemise. Through it Mathieu could see the soft rich curve of her hips. He went in: he always felt as though he were entering a huge sea-shell. Marcelle locked the door. Mathieu made his way to the large wall cupboard, opened it, and put his shoes inside; then he looked at Marcelle and saw that there was something the matter.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, in a low tone.

‘Nothing,’ said Marcelle under her breath. ‘Are you all right, old boy?’

‘I’m broke: otherwise all right.’

He kissed her on the neck and on the lips. Her neck smelt of ambergris, her mouth smelt of cheap cigarettes. Marcelle sat down on the edge of the bed, and gazed at her legs while Mathieu undressed.

‘What’s that?’ asked Mathieu.

There was an unfamiliar photograph on the mantelpiece. He went up to look at it and saw an angular girl, wearing her hair cut like a boy’s, and a hard, nervous smile. She was dressed in a man’s jacket, and flat-heeled shoes.

‘It’s me,’ said Marcelle, without raising her head.

Mathieu turned round: Marcelle had pulled her vest up over her fleshy thighs: she was leaning forward and beneath her vest Mathieu caught the soft outlines of her rounded breasts.

‘Where did you find it?’

‘In an album. It was taken in 1928.’

Mathieu carefully folded up his jacket and put it in the cup-board beside his shoes. Then he asked: ‘Do you still took at family albums?’

‘No, but I had a sort of feeling today that I’d like to remind myself of those times, and see what I was like before I knew you, and when I was always well. Bring it here.’

Mathieu brought it to her, and she snatched it out of his hands. He sat down beside her. She shivered and drew back, eyeing the photograph with a vague smile, ‘I was a scream in those days.’ she said.

The girl was standing stiffly upright, leaning against a garden railing. Her mouth was open: she too was just about to say: ‘It’s a scream,’ with the pert assurance of the Marcelle of today. But she was young and slim. Marcelle shook her head.

‘Such a scream’. It was taken in the Luxemburg by a chemistry student. You see the blouse I’m wearing? I’d bought it that very day, for a trip to Fontainebleau we had fixed for the following Sunday. Good Lord…!’

There was certainly something wrong: her gestures had never been so brusque, nor her voice so curt and masculine. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, blankly naked and defenceless, like a great porcelain vase in that dim pink room, and it was almost painful to hear her speak in that masculine voice, and smell the dark, strong odour of her body. Mathieu grasped her shoulders and drew her towards him. ‘Do you regret those days?’

‘No,’ replied Marcelle acidly: ‘but I regret the life I might have had.’

She had begun to study chemistry, and had to give it up owing to illness. ‘One would think she bears me a grudge for it,’ thought Mathieu. He opened his mouth to ask her some more questions, but caught her expression and was silent. She was gazing at the photograph with a sad, intense expression.

‘I’ve got fatter, haven’t I?’


She shrugged her shoulders and flung the photograph on to the bed. ‘It’s true,’ thought Mathieu, ‘she’s had a rather rotten life.’ He tried to kiss her on the cheek, but she drew back, quite gently, laughed nervously, and said: ‘That’s ten years ago.’

And Mathieu thought: ‘I give her nothing.’ He came to see her four nights a week; he told her all his doings in minutest detail. She gave him advice, in a grave and slightly maternal tone. She often used to say: ‘I live by proxy.’

‘What did you do yesterday?’ he asked her. ‘Did you go out?’ Marcelle waved her hand wearily and answered: ‘No, I was tired. I read for a bit, but Mother kept on interrupting me about the shop.’

‘And today?’

‘I did go out today,’ said she, gloomily, ‘I felt I ought to get some air and see some people in the street. So I walked down as far as the Rue de la Gaité, and enjoyed it; and I wanted to see Andrée.’

‘And did you?’

‘Yes, for five minutes. Just as I was leaving her, it began to rain: it’s a funny sort of day for June, and besides the people looked so hideous. So I took a taxi and came home. What did you do?’ she asked nonchalantly.

Mathieu didn’t want to tell her. ‘Yesterday,’ he said. ‘I took my last classes at the school. I dined with Jacques, which was as boring as usual. This morning I went to the bursar’s office to see if they couldn’t advance me something: but apparently it’s not done. When I was at Beauvais I always managed to fix it with the bursar. Then I saw Ivich.’

Marcelle raised her eyebrows and looked at him. He didn’t like talking to her about Ivich. ‘She’s a bit under the weather just now.’


Marcelle’s voice was steadier, and a sage, masculine sort of look had come into her face. He said with lips half-closed: ‘She’ll be ploughed in her exam.’

‘But you told me she’d been working hard.’

‘Well—I daresay she has, in her own way—that is, she no doubt sits for hours over a book. But you know what she’s like. She has visions, almost like a lunatic. In October, she was well up in botany, and the examiner was quite satisfied: and then she suddenly saw herself opposite a bald chap who was talking about coelenterata. This seemed to her just funny, and she thought: "I don’t give a curse for coelenterata," and the chap couldn’t get another word out of her.’

‘What an odd little creature she must be,’ said Marcelle dreamily.

‘Anyway,’ said Mathieu. ‘I’m afraid she may do it again, or get some fantastic idea into her head.’

His tone, which suggested a sort of protective detachment, was surely intended to mislead. Everything that could be expressed in words, he said. ‘But what are words?’

He paused, then hung his head despondently. Marcelle was well aware of his affection for Ivich: she would not in fact have minded if he had been her lover. On one thing only she insisted—that he should talk about Ivich in just that tone. Mathieu had kept on stroking Marcelle’s back and her eyelids began to droop; she liked having her back stroked, particularly at the level of her hips and between the shoulder-blades. But she suddenly drew back, and her face hardened, as Mathieu said: ‘Look here, Marcelle, I don’t care if Ivich is ploughed, she isn’t suited to be a doctor any more than I am. In any case, even if she passed the P. C. B., her first dissection would so revolt her that she would never set foot in the place again. But if it doesn’t come off this time, she’ll do something silly. If she fails, her family won’t let her start again.’

‘What exact kind of silly thing do you mean?’ asked Marcellein a precise tone.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied, rather crestfallen.

‘Ah, I know you only too well, my poor boy. You daren’t admit it, but you’re afraid that she’ll put a bullet through her skin. And the creature pretends to loathe anything romantic. One really might suppose you’d never seen that skin of hers. I wouldn’t dare touch it, for fear of scratching it. A doll with a skin like that isn’t going to mess it up with a revolver shot. I can quite well picture her prostrate on a chair with her hair all over her face glaring at a neat little Browning in front of her, in the best Russian manner. But anything more—not on your life! Revolvers are meant for crocodile-skins like ours.’

She laid her arms against Mathieu’s. He had a whiter skin than hers.

‘Just look, darling—especially at mine, it’s like morocco leather.’ And she began to laugh. ‘I would puncture rather well, don’t you think? I can picture a nice little round hole under my left breast, with neat, clean, red edges. It wouldn’t be at all disfiguring.’

She was still laughing. Mathieu laid a hand over her mouth. ‘Be quiet, you’ll waken the old lady.’

She was silent, and he said: ‘How nervy you are!’

She did not answer. Mathieu laid a hand on Marcelle’s leg and stroked it gently.

He loved that soft and buttery skin, its silky down that sent a thousand delicate tremors through his fingers. Marcelle did not move: she looked at Mathieu’s hand. And after a while Mathieu took his hand away.

‘Look at me,’ said he.

For an instant he saw her circled eyes, and in them a flash of haughty desperation.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing,’ she said, turning her head away.

It was always like that with her: she was emotionally constricted. The moment would come when she couldn’t contain herself: then she would blurt it out. One could do nothing but mark time until that moment did come. Mathieu dreaded those noiseless explosions: the whispered caution with which passion had to be expressed in that sea-shell room, in order not to awaken Mme Duffet, had always revolted him. Mathieu got up, walked to the cupboard, and took the square of cardboard out of his jacket pocket ‘Look at this.’

‘What is it?’

‘A fellow gave it to me in the street not long ago. He looked a decent sort, and I gave him a little money.’

Marcelle took the card with an indifferent air. Mathieu felt a tie of something like complicity between himself and the fellow in the street. And he added: ‘It meant something to him, you know.’

‘Was he an anarchist?’

‘I don’t know. He wanted to stand me a drink.’

‘Did you refuse it?’


‘Why?’ asked Marcelle casually. ‘You might have found him amusing.’

‘Pah!’ said Mathieu.

Marcelle raised her head, and peered at the clock with a half smile.

‘It’s curious,’ she said, ‘but I hate you to tell me things like that: and God knows there are enough of them at the moment. Your life is full of missed opportunities.’

‘You call that a missed opportunity.’

‘Yes. There was a time when you would go out of your way to meet such people.’

‘I dare say I’ve changed a bit,’ said Mathieu, good-humouredly. ‘What do you think? Am I getting old?’

‘You’re thirty-four,’ said Marcelle soberly. Thirty-four. Mathieu thought of Ivich, and was conscious of a slight shock of annoyance.

‘Yes… But I don’t think it’s age: it’s a sort of fastidiousness. I wouldn’t have been in the mood.’

‘You very seldom are, nowadays,’ said Marcelle.

‘And he wouldn’t have been either,’ added Mathieu briskly. ‘When a man gets drunk he gets sentimental. That’s what I wanted to avoid.’

And he thought to himself: ‘That isn’t altogether true. I didn’t really look at it like that.’ He wanted to make an effort to be sincere. Mathieu and Marcelle had agreed that they would always tell each other everything. ‘The fact is—’ he began.

But Marcelle had begun to laugh: a low, rich, cooing laugh, as though she were stroking his hair and saying: ‘Poor old boy.’ But she did not look at all affectionate.

‘That’s very like you,’ said she. ‘You’re so afraid of anything sentimental! Supposing you had got a little sentimental with that poor lad, would it have mattered?’

‘Well, it wouldn’t have done me any good.’

He was trying to defend himself against himself.

Marcelle smiled a frosty smile. ‘She wants to draw me,’ thought Mathieu, rather disconcerted. He was feeling peaceably inclined, and puzzled: he was in fact in a good temper, and didn’t want an argument.

‘Look here,’ said he. ‘You’re quite wrong to catch me up like this. In the first place, I hadn’t the time. I was on my way here.’

‘You’re quite right,’ said Marcelle. ‘It’s nothing. Absolutely nothing, really: not enough to get a cat into trouble… But all the same it’s symptomatic.’

Mathieu started: if only she wouldn’t use such tiresome words.

‘Really, really,’ he said. ‘I can’t imagine why it should interest you.’

‘Well, it’s that same frankness you fuss about so much. You’re so absurdly scared of being your own dupe, my poor boy, that you would back out of the finest adventure in the world rather than risk telling yourself a lie.’

‘Quite true, and you know it,’ said Mathieu. ‘But that’s an old story.’

He thought her unfair. ‘Frankness’—he detested the word, but Marcelle had acquired it some while back. The winter before, it had been ‘urgency’ (words did not last her for much more than a season), they had grown into the habit of it together, they felt mutually responsible for maintaining it—indeed it was, actually, the inner meaning of their love. When Mathieu had pledged himself to Marcelle, he had forever renounced all thoughts of solitude, those cool thoughts, a little shadowy and timorous, that used to dart into his mind with the furtive vivacity of fish. He could not love Marcelle save in complete frankness: she was his frankness embodied, his comrade, his witness, his counsellor, and his critic.

‘If I lied to myself,’ said he, ‘I should have the feeling I was lying to you as well. And I couldn’t bear that.’

‘Yes,’ said Marcelle; but she did not look as if she believed him.

‘You don’t look as if you believed me?’

‘Oh yes I do,’ she said, nonchalantly.

‘You think I’m lying to myself?’

‘No—anyway, one can’t ever know. But I don’t think so. Still, do you know what I do believe? That you are beginning to sterilize yourself a little. I thought that today. Everything is so neat and tidy in your mind: it smells of clean linen: it’s as though you had just come out of a drying-cupboard. But there’s a want of shade. There’s nothing useless, nor hesitant, nor underhand about you now. It’s all high noon. And don’t tell me this is all for my benefit. You’re moving down your own incline: you’ve acquired the taste for self-analysis.’

Mathieu was disconcerted. Marcelle was often rather hard: she remained always on guard, a little aggressive, a littlesuspicious, and if Mathieu didn’t agree with her, she often thought he was trying to dominate her. But he had rarely met her in such a resolve to be disagreeable. And then there was that photo on the bed. He eyed Marcelle: the moment had not yet come when she could be induced to speak.

‘I’m not so much interested in myself as all that,’ he said simply.

‘I know,’ said Marcelle. ‘It isn’t an aim, it’s a means. It helps you to get rid of yourself; to contemplate and criticize yourself: that’s the attitude you prefer. When you look at yourself, you imagine you aren’t what you see, you imagine you are nothing. That is your ideal: you want to be nothing.’

‘To be nothing?’ repeated Mathieu slowly. ‘No, it isn’t. Listen. I… I recognize no allegiance except to myself.’

‘Yes—you want to be free. Absolutely free. It’s your vice.’

‘It’s not a vice,’ said Mathieu. ‘It’s… what else can a man do?’

He was annoyed: he had explained all this to Marcelle a hundred times before, and she knew it was what he had most at heart.

‘If… if I didn’t try to get my life moving on my own account, I should think it just absurd to go on living.’

A look of smiling obstinacy had come into Marcelle’s face.

‘Yes, yes—it’s your vice.’

‘It’s not a vice. It’s how I’m made.’

‘Why aren’t other people made like that, if it isn’t a vice?’

‘They are, only they don’t know it.’

Marcelle had stopped smiling, and a hard, grim line appeared at the corner of her lips.

‘Well, I don’t feel such a need to be free.’

Mathieu eyed her bent neck, and felt troubled: it was always this sense of remorse, absurd remorse, that haunted him in her company. He realized that he would never be able to put himself in Marcelle’s place. ‘The freedom I talk about is the freedom of a sound and healthy man.’ He laid a hand on her neck, and gently squeezed the luscious but no longer youthful flesh.

‘Marcelle, are you feeling bored with life?’

She looked at him with faintly troubled eyes. ‘No.’

Silence fell. Mathieu felt a thrill at the tips of his fingers. Just at the tips of his fingers. He passed his hand slowly down Marcelle’s back, and Marcelle’s eyelids drooped: he could see her long black lashes. He drew her towards him. He had no actual desire for her at that moment, it was rather a longing to see that stubborn, angular spirit melt like an icicle in the sunshine. Marcelle let her head fall on to Mathieu’s shoulder, and he could see only too clearly her brown skin, and the bluish, veined curves beneath her eyes. And he thought to himself: ‘Good Lord, she’s getting old.’ And he reflected, too, that he was old. He leaned over her with a feeling of uneasiness: he wished he could forget himself, and her. But time had passed since he forgot himself when making love to her. He kissed her on the lips: she had fine lips, firm and sharply cut. She slid gently backwards and lay on the bed with eyes closed, limp and prostrate. Mathieu got up, took off his trousers and his shirt, folded them up and placed them at the foot of the bed, and then lay down beside her. But he noticed that her eyes were wide and set, she was staring at the ceiling with her hands clasped beneath her head.