Grasshoppers sprang aside in her path as she walked, and thick stems of clover bowed devotedly, swept by the fringe of the long silk cloak; soft, pale yellow patches of sunlight lay on the grass, and the serene vitality of all the youthful, summer mornings of the world surrounded her. Oh youth! And she went quite quietly, with relaxed, dreamy steps, wearily, but even so light at heart; it seemed that instead of air some special fluid surrounded her like an insubstantial veil, aromatic as the delicate, unsophisticated scents of the meadow; and its name would be youth. My God! She was slightly depressed, and that pleased her a little.
She headed across the field of lucerne towards the cornfields, towards the little plank bridge over the stream where the forest began and would immediately greet her with its dewy vapours, its silent, wise and grave columns which would bow coolly and find nothing remarkable about her. Because they too live their own inner lives.
On the right two young peasant women were coming along the hillside path with sickle and rake, and the one tugged at her companion’s elbow:
“Look! It’s the bailiff’s mother, she’s come from Pest, she’s been living abroad.”
She saw them, looked away so as not to be greeted, actually turned off the path; she gathered her cloak with a sudden movement and went on more quickly. Oh dear! People! And there arose in her a feeling of embarrassment that she had not previously known but which nowadays came often.
Beneath the bronze-brown veil and the skilfully applied layer of fine powder a nervous spasm suddenly flickered over her face. What had she said about her?… and in the dewy, tranquil early morning little flower-buds suddenly turned their tiny faces as she passed, prejudiced and scandalized. Ah, look, here comes that hat with a veil again, the rustling grey cloak, look, here comes that woman from the bailiff’s house again today, and at the time when coffee is being ground, milk strained and the hens fed. And look, see, a woman has managed to get herself washed, do her hair, put her face on, and come in a hat with a veil, through hidden little back garden gates, over the lucerne and the corn. Now she felt that she was being watched, that someone was invisibly following in her footsteps; the garden, the field of lucerne, the white pillars on the veranda could see her, were spying on her, the red tiled roof with its skylights like hooded eyes was looking askance at her. And she became uncomfortable there, under the clear bright sky; she was a woman of the bright city lights, of rented love-nests with pleated curtains and of love rented to others, who had regarded herself all her life as straightforward, untrammelled and erect of head.
Yes, the house threatened her now, the strange village house, because she was upsetting its order, its ways. The house, in which no one like her had lived before, and where she too had wanted to become a decent, house-proud woman, because a curious, pious or sickly caprice had suggested that to her. It was the home of him that she had once brought into the world, whom she had, from afar, supplied plentifully with money until he had grown up, and of whom she had thought from time to time in self-deceiving maternal reveries; and yet she felt that of all the strangers in the world he was the least well known to her. And for months the village house had been watching her as a stranger, with its unpleasant, shuttered window-eyes.
A little cloud came over the face of the morning sun, the long grass rustled suddenly in the light breeze, and the pale, playful patches of light vanished. Celestine—that was her name—looked into space and considered herself. Who was she? She thought back over her life, the decades that she had spent travelling, selling her body, though with a certain tasteful moderation, a slight illusion of superiority, simply and self-consciously. Indeed, in her world respect and fellow-feeling had surrounded her, because those that had associated with her had rejected or for the time being set aside the standards of morality. And later she had counted more and more hairlines on her face and a streak of grey in her hair when the dye faded. Strange times had come upon her. In fact, she had virtually had to nurse an old priest, who had left her some property, before he died, and when she had gone back into the tumult of life she had sometimes yearned rather for the drone of the mass, the mist of incense, and smiled to herself. Oh, this was old age! Her blood, her female essence, had then long been dormant. So should she seek refuge in a church, become pious, like the rest? And she had remembered that she had the status of a widow, and a son somewhere in a little village. And today, beneath the morning sky as it slowly clouded over, by the quiet, unkempt forest, she realised clearly: she had been sick at the time when that misguided thought seemed forced upon her, when she had said farewell to her last friend; yes, unaccustomed solitude and fear of growing old had made her wish with convulsive power, frenziedly and mindlessly, to come here and here alone, to a position of respectability, as she thought, to a quiet life, to affection, to live with the bailiff that she did not know, her son.
She entered the trees and, breathing heavily and head bowed, walked on. She remembered the first day, when, in the cloudy, chilly spring twilight, the little local steam-train had chugged wearily towards the village station, and she, sitting with eyes closed on the dusty leather upholstery, sketched out her future in vague, sweeping outline. She would live here from now on, here she would be carried out to the little village cemetery with its acacias. Indeed, the last remnant of bronze-red dye would very soon fade from her hair and in a fortnight the grey strands would shine forth if she parted it in the centre and shaped it close to her temples. In time she would perhaps wear a black headband with pearls … In any case she would get her daughter-in-law to make her some loose-fitting, decent paletots in grey satin, to be fastened at the throat with an antique ivory pin in the shape of two clasped hands, and she would buy a black glazed cotton apron trimmed with fur to put on when nursing her little grandson. She gave a wry smile at the more sober reality, and considered scornfully that obstinate enthusiasm; yes, that had all been the vanity of the faded courtesan who had taken it into her head voluntarily to leave the garden of love before disdain or disregard came her way. She had closed her eyes and dreamed hard.
Now she could see herself arriving and alighting in front of the little signal-box over there at the bottom of the vine-hills, see coming towards her the sturdy, big villager, a little confused by emotion, ceremonious and grave.
“You’ll be able, mother,” said he later in the carriage, “to live in our house from now on in peace. No one knows a thing. The money? Put it aside for Palkó when he grows up, if you like, don’t give it to us. We’re all right as we are, comfortably off.”
Then there they were in the squat little village house with its hooded-eye windows. Chickens pecked on the grassy courtyard, and broad ruts wound away toward the barns and farm-workers’ cottages, shaggy dogs and grubby peasant children formed a tail behind the carriage, a rich stew steamed on the table laid on the porch, insects fluttered round the lamp, Palkó howled when made to sit on her lap, and a little woman in a print dress with black hair and tiny eyes offered the food in a feeble voice. And suddenly—oh, how she relived that special moment in her heart – over the uneasy and tense family company there flew towards her from somewhere at the end of the table a look, profound and childish, worried, fascinated and passionate, from a very young, very black and gleaming pair of eyes which had previously tremulously fixed on their plate if their looks met, and then followed every movement of her mouth, her hand and her clothes with increasingly daring curiosity, shining and tense. And she herself had perhaps not been aware, perhaps it had merely been force of habit, that his look had sometimes been returned with unfeigned encouragement, indeed with feminine delight. The bailiff had introduced the young man previously, when she had arrived.
“This is young Karsay, my unofficial clerk, his father wants him to be trained as a good farmer under me. Otherwise he writes poetry in the seed-store, in the ledger and on the sack labels.”
… and did she know any more about him today? She could see his unruly, wavy, shiny black hair, his passionate mouth, quite preposterously, artlessly red, his boyish, upright, lissom young body, and did not know how it could all have happened. But she remembered that next day she had put on her make-up with such minute, excited and artistic care as never before, tinted her thinning, fading hair with thick brown walnut-juice and—indeed, this was not at all a cause for rejoicing—quickly sent off for certain excellent slimming pills. All this was slightly to be deplored. Good Lord, in the very first week she was dressing for the sake of a twenty-year-old village lad as she had done previously for the great garden parties of aristocrats, to which, apart from her, the only women invited were fashionable actresses. She dressed up and walked out, the village children hid behind the fences and stared, and her daughter-in-law continued to strain the milk all by herself.
She came to a clearing where the grass of the forest floor was still wet with dew, the sun broke through again, and a thrush sang in the bushes. Celestine sighed; oh, everything had been ruined by the whole burden of everyday things, the scheming, people’s prying eyes, the cool reception from the family. She thought of the wonderful, girlish excitement of the first weeks, this poor, poor forty-three-year-old woman; for the very first and only time in her adventurous, drifting life there had begun this late, unplanned and delicate blossoming, curious rushes of emotion, incomprehensible, veiled, sweetly overwhelming sensations, profound and mysterious passion. She, upon whom for perhaps the first time in her life someone had looked with timorous desire, then with passionate, youthful earnestness, whose hand had, for the first time, been taken surreptitiously, who had, for the first time, been kissed by burning youthful lips—not a woman with kisses for sale, but her, her alone, herself, Celestine. Yes, the whole past had been a vulgar mockery, what with her ageing body, her cosmetics and fuss, but today Celestine was young, young, much more so than the lawyer’s daughters in their red dresses that flirted serially with the schoolmasters. Is this really what people call love, then, Celestine?
She lifted her head and took a pace toward the trees; from somewhere farther on came the light, soft sound of approaching hooves. Yes, it was his horse, he’d be there at any moment. Celestine leant against a tree and smiled. And in that moment she was almost at peace, because she was thinking as he approached of the other’s unbridled, naive impatience, his darting eyes and foolish, pulsing young blood. That he was now using his spurs, turning into the forest, dismounting and tethering his horse, coming, and the bushes rustling; how good it all was!
“Mummy! My little mother, my wonderful little mother!’
They were sitting on the grass, the boy’s face buried in her lap, and animated, urgent, pulsating kisses fell upon her delicately soft hands, her rounded, white fingers.
“Little mummy, my gorgeous, wonderful, lovely woman.”
Celestine looked away above the bowed head and playfully, calmly, pressed clumps of gleaming, unruly hair between the gentle fingers of her one hand, separated them, tangled them up. Now she was really being a mother. And again just a trace of regret showed on her mature, regular features. How crazy this lad was, what a fathead, what a big baby. Her young lover.
“Mummy!” she whispered quietly, “that’s certainly what I am to you!”
He raised his blazing face, his smooth, fine forehead, and with great, reproachful, child-weakness looked into her eyes.
“Not again, Celestine? That’s only what I call you because I need you so! All right, if it’s a sickness or silliness on my part I don’t care. You can see how much I worry about what people think. Your son’s older than me? What have he and I in common? When you had him at the age of seventeen you weren’t what you are now, you weren’t you, and now you’re my woman.”
“Be quiet, be quiet!”
He went on, leaning on one elbow, and took her hands in both of his.
“Let’s not stay here, Celestine! It’s bad for you and for me as well. If my father’s angry I’ll soon be of age, and there’s a tiny property of my mother’s, a house, some land, you know, I’ve told you. My mother’s dead, but she’ll surely love you. Will you come?”
Celestine turned away and plucked at the tiny forest plants. She felt a great disturbance in her heart, the crying contrasts between things, the impossibility of the situation; and as she looked at the ground her eyes slowly filled with tears. The boy squeezed her arm with compassionate sympathy and profound, human enthusiasm.
“I know, yes! So what do I care where and how you’ve lived until now, and what you’ve done. Now you love me, now you’ve given birth to me. You’ve borne me, like a bud, that’s what your soul’s like, the rest is silly prejudice. I despise the whole of stupid society, order, morality, ugh, I’ve been sick and tired of them for a long time. Because you’ve seen, my room’s full of books, and I spend half the night scribbling or trying to play the violin. I should have gone somewhere else, not come here to worry about farmhands. Anyway, I never will; my father would like me to, but one day I shall have to go my own way. I want the big city, culture, that whole wonderful kaleidoscopic wide world, and you’ve brought the scent of it here on your clothes. You!”
She only half understood him. She merely sensed her superiority, and was comforted by the naively shining dreams of this country boy. She felt his look, the unrestrained, turbulent power of the passion in it, the untamed overflowing of total earthly love with which the air was electric. She lowered her gaze, leant against a tree-trunk and breathed in deeply the forest air, its oppressive early-morning vapours with their hint of rain and the lingering, burning, demanding, triumphal man’s kisses from the scarcely mature, lively lips of the boy-child. In the silence the dark trees stood solemnly on guard, from time to time a bird rustled quietly, inquisitively in a bush, and a little breeze ruffled the thick forest grass.
The flow of passionate words had long ceased; each felt their own ego being made real and elevated in the completeness which bound them. The proud and vigorous tempest of youth had shaken up her long-jaded system, and the new, childishly fresh passion offered her feelings that she had never known, not guessed at, and joyous surprises. And the forest did not keep account of the moments of lovemaking, nor did the sun measure them.
Imperceptibly, bright, light rain-clouds drifted across the sky. The branches shook at times in the rising wind, and from the distance could be heard a faint creaking, the sound of loaded peasant carts hurrying along. Now it seemed that someone was coming through the trees, probably a woodcutter, although the sound of his footsteps was covered by the rest and the constantly growing sound of approaching rain.
“Let me go, I’m going home now.”
“Not yet! How soon will you be able to come again? And there, when the others are around, I can’t bear to look at you. Where they make you a grandmother. You of all people! Stay a little longer.”
And with eyes closed, in eternally holy, blind unselfconsciousness they enjoyed once more the kisses of love, the last, and then suddenly they both started up, unsteadily, faces pale and eyes staring. On the far side of the clearing, in the end of a little, concealed path a man stood watching them. The shadow of a bush hid his face, but nevertheless it was he—the bailiff.
Horror gripped them only in the surprise of the first moment. Then the clerk raised his head and with defiant resolve, a little naively, with sombre pathos, stepped forward. She remained standing beneath the tree and in that scene of appalling disenchantment her inwardmost, wise humanity took stock in silent, brief argument of what had happened.
‘Now at least the madness is over!’ she said to herself suddenly, without realising that she did so without the slightest reason.
Because nothing even happened. The man hidden in the bushes must have been watching them for quite some time; his face now registered no surprise, only a profound, almost pitying disdain, an affront suffered by grave respectability, and a trace of genuine regret. He simply turned aside his darkening brow and avoided his mother’s eye; indeed, he was about to leave without a word, but then he stopped for a moment and said quite quietly to the young man:
“The farm manager’s been expecting you at the ricks since early this morning.”
Just the imputation of responsibility shirked. Then he stopped and waited, his face expressionless, for the lad, with a silent nod, to set off shamefacedly about his business. When he had gone, he too went on his way without a word.
Celestine, however, was again alone, and with a chilly, sober smile told herself: Yes, indeed, alone in the world once again. She felt that this was all that her last little fling had needed, a resounding, organic finale, and it was all over. How perverted, how contrary to nature that scene had been! And the two men who had not known how to conduct themselves, because in that situation the conventions of good form had no guidance to offer. And Celestine could smile because in the first moment of solitude she felt no longer the pathos of her fate, but only its bitter, weary humour. The whole thing’s been life’s little joke, she said to herself, and, from the moment that a third person could know of it as well, nothing more, just ridiculous.
… she too set off. Her pursed, wryly smiling lips quivered at times, and a peculiar, painful lump in the throat brought her to the verge of tears, but nevertheless Celestine went resolutely on down the gloomy forest road under the now clouded summer sky, as the drizzle soaked through her veil and smudged the make-up on her face, on down the little vine-hills towards the railway signal-box and the distant, desolate evening of life.