Of Such a Radiance
A RADIO bleated and people babbled. George banged down his empty glass on the piano. His lean face was molded by bitterness, and his pale hair was peaked on the crown rebelliously.
“As a race,” proclaimed George loudly, “we are decadent.”
The girl who had occupied most of George’s time and all of his thoughts, who had accepted his floral contributions and helped him select a five-carat diamond, had just announced her engagement. But not to George. His resentment was revealing itself in a deep dissatisfaction with the general structure of life on the North American continent.
“Take the matter of summer holidays,” he expounded. "How do the English -the allegedly effete English—spend theirs?”
Facetious suggestions poured in. George ignored them. “They pack rucksacks, buckle on brogues, and hike through the rural districts of Wales and Scotland. They get back to the humble beginnings, to life at its source. And what do we do?”
More facetious suggestions rained on George, all of them pointed, most of them personal.
“We play golf, dance, and lie around on beaches, making ineffectual love to girls with synthetic personalities,” he concluded.
Julian, dark and wiry, and a lifelong friend, banged down his glass beside George’s. "The lad’s right,” endorsed Julian. “We. the scions of the pioneers, now drive across the country, sprawled behind sixteen cylinders.”
"I’ll take Véronique," firmly remarked a disinterested voice, and the radio was turned up.
“I’ll see you again, whenever stars . . sang the radio, not very tactfully under the circumstances.
George snorted. "Véronique. What does she know of the spontaneity of simple beauty? A woman whose voice pounds against a million eardrums, who plugs songs banged together in Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley!”
"Lock him up in the piano,” advised the disinterested one wearily.
But the idea festered. In the hope that he might rediscover some old sincerity that would free him from the nagging memory of the girl with the ephemeral fancy, George finally persuaded Julian to set out with him on a walking tour. And as villages occur with reliable frequency throughout the Province of Quebec, they decided to tramp around the G aspé Peninsula.
They drove to Quebec City, put their car in storage, and took a ferry across the St. Lawrence.
"I don’t believe I’ll get to Gaspé.” Julian predicted, perching himself on the rail of the ferry and regarding the southern shore line that stretched interminably into the horizon. "I’m probably the sort of man who blisters under forced marches.”
George said nothing. His eyes gleamed with anticipation. No distance was too great for George. At every step of the way, he would be grinding under heel certain floral contributions, an unreturned five-carat diamond, and the memory of mellow, intimate moments that had gone sour.
Three days and seven blisters past Levis. Julian faded. He decided to return for the car.
"I’ll drive on to Percé,” Julian promised. "And wait for you. You’ll find me in a boat. Fishing. Easy on the feet, boats. ”
ALONE, but still grim with determination. George was approaching Moule-en-Mouche. He had come to the conclusion that Julian must have slipped past him several days before, when he saw a girl swinging down the road ahead of him. Momentarily, he forgot Julian.
Catching up with her, he noticed wide, dark eyes and a covey of black curls bobbing over a creamy forehead. On her arm she carried a basket of cherries. With luck, thought George, she might be not only lovely and lithe but bilingual.
“Pardon, mademoiselle,’' George began hesitantly. " Voulez-vous me dire sí—ah—-if there’s a hotel in Moule-enMouche?”
She turned and brought into full view a face that would have marked the beginning of a new era for anyone but a misogynist. It even made an impression on George.
"It is so sad.” she told him. “There is no hotel in Mouleen-Mouche. Just last night, fire destroyed the hotel, the bank, and the store.”
"How far to the next town?”
"Ten miles, m’nsieur. to Point-au-Gap.”
George groaned. “I ve already walked twenty today.” "You look for work, possibly?” she suggested sympathetically.
"If I’m looking for anything it’s an essential value or a basic truth.”
That needed further explanation, so they climbed onto a stone fence and ate cherries while George told her about the disintegration of the Western races, hollow glamor, and brittle emotion. Although he made no direct reference to the girl who had stood him up, she was behind everything he said. And because he needed an example to point his remarks, George mentioned Véronique; Véronique was the scapegoat upon whom he poured out his bitterness.
“They say in Moule-en-Mouche that I sing as Véronique,” she said, blowing a cherry pit from her lips. “ Voilà! I prove it.”
Her voice slipped among the tricky high notes of a little French song with the ease of a greased ball bearing. Such natural grace enchanted George.
“Compared to you,” He assured her. "Véronique sounds like a thirsty crow.”
“You are kind, m’nsieur,” she laughed and jumped down from the fence. “I am Mathilde, niece of M. Rouane, the apothicaire. Since there is no hotel, my uncle will be pleased to offer you hospitality.”
They were entering Moule-en-Mouche when brakes squealed behind them. It was Julian with the car.
“On my way to Percé!” Julian called out. Then he noticed Mathilde and looked as though a swing band had suddenly started to play. “Let me give you a lift,” he quickly added.
“No, thanks,” George stared purposefully at Julian over Mathilde’s black curls. “We’re walking.”
Julian’s eyebrows arched. But he let out the clutch, obviously reluctant, and proceeded on his way to Percé.
THE MEN of Moule-en-Mouche were working in the ruins of the hotel. Theirs was the conviviality of the tug-of-war at the police games, as they pulled against the hotel stove which had collapsed into the cellar. For anchorman, they had a young giant, sooty and flaming haired.
“All day they struggle with the stove,” Mathilde explained. "First, they used a truck, but her axle broke. Now, they must heave.”
“I’ll lend a hand,” offered George.
His added weight brought triumph to the men of Mouleen-Mouche. They hoisted the stove clear of the pit.
“Eh bien!” cried the giant, clapping George heartily on the back. “You are indeed a man.”
With ready and disarming friendliness, he fell in step beside Mathilde ancÄGeorge as they continued down the street. His name, itferanspired, was ’Toine.
M. Rouane lived® a small white house with geraniums crowding all the wirÄws like curious children. Skirting the onion bed, Mathilde®d the way around to the back, where ’Toine made himselN^toroughly at home by splashing away the grime and cfc^PNn a bucket of water. George turned to Mathilde.
"A relative?” he enqfu.vv/Jfadicating Toine.
“A neighbor,” Mathiide and her glance slid up
to George’s in a breath-takiCg P|Ä|f admiration, but not for George. “ ’Toine’s hair is wor^Hful, is it not? Of such a radiance! Magnifique, non?” W There were no lights in Moule-en-Mouche that night ; the fire had brought down the wires. So supper was a casual affair by candlelight. By candlelight, the color of ’Toine’s hair was indeed magnificent. George had a sudden feeling of inadequacy about his own pale, unruly crop.
M. Rouane, plumply gracious, displayed discreet interest in his unexpected guest, and George had to explain again about the walking tour which was his individual protest against the rot that was corroding the people of the West-
George was jilted — George was romantic — So George dyed his hair to woo another girl
ern Hemisphere. For the first time, George found the idea boring.
But an idea that could be elaborated never bored M. Rouane. And this one was particularly meaty.
“Although I seldom go beyond Moule-en-Mouche, I must disagree with you. When I look at you, m’nsieur. and at Toine, I do not see anything of decay. Mais non.”
George listened absently, as M. Rouane enlarged the theme in an increasing number of variations. He was watching Toine and Mathilde. Obviously Toine was in love with Mathilde. When she went to the kitchen, Toine’s face clouded with the sorrow of a great parting; when she reappeared, it glowed as radiantly as his hair. For his part, George noticed that the luminous warmth of the candles faded when Mathilde was not in the room.
After supper he approached M. Rouane with a request.
“Henna?” exclaimed M. Rouane incredulously. He put on his spectacles and went to his dispensary. “There is
henna of the herb and henna of the chemist. Which do you desire?”
George didn’t know. While M. Rouane searched for henna, George took advantage of his turned back to flip a coin. It advised henna of the chemist. Shoving the package into his pocket, George went out to the back porch where ’Toine was playing a harmonica and managing, somehow, to make it sound fancier than a symphony orchestra. Even in the dusk, Toine's hair shone like red barberries in October.
Mathilde sat on the bottom step with her chin cupped in her hands, and brooded upon the shadows which deepened among the hills on the opposite shore of the river. The sun had set, but there was still a veil of golden light on the hilltops. From there to the zenith, the sky stretched in a monochromatic scale of translucence. The river mirrored it.
“The St. Lawrence is very blue this evening,” said Mathilde dreamily. “Just the shade of the cloak of the little figure which you carved for me, ’Toine.”
Toine finished the tune he was playing ami then took the harmonica from his lips. “The river and the sky have the color of fidelity,” he remarked.
If a St. Bernard had suddenly grown lyrical, George could have been no more surprised. Mathilde tried to explain.
“I have been away from here.” she told George. “And while I was gone Toine carved a likeness of me. But when it was finished, it was not of me. It is difficult to say—it was more the likeness of a faith, or a desire, than of a person.”
They sat in silence until the blue became violet and faded into blackness. Moonlight stole in stealthily, and lay like a thin leaf along the river. Toine tcx)k out his harmonica again and Mathilde sang. As she tipped back her head, George could see the faint throb of the pulse in her slim throat and the clear line where black curls bordered her forehead.
If Véronique, last winter’s sensation of tne air waves, happened to come to Moule-en-Mouche and walk down the main street to the home of M. Rouane, if she stepped over the onion bed and found her way around to the back porch where Mathilde was singing. George w as sure that Véronique would then hear a voice which would turn her fabulous complexion to an envious coppery green. The beauty of Mathilde’s songs flowed as spontaneously as the waves of the St. Lawrence. Their tenderness was as authentic as the moonlight.
George slipped down to the bottom step beside Mathilde. He had arrived at a decision. Julian could wait for him at Percé. Julian could fish the Gulf of St. I^awrence until the supply of bait along the whole length of the Gaspé Peninsula was exhausted. George meant to remain in Moule-enMouche, indefinitely.
In Moule-en-Mouche life had simplicity and dignity. An old sincerity, a basic truth, or an essential value might lurk in any corner.
Also, in Moule-en-Mouche, there w'as Mathilde.
VWHTH THE flickering end of a candle in one hand and ** a jug of hot w-ater in the other, George finally climbed the stairs to his room. Plumbing in Moule-en-Mouche was primitive, so he took the henna from his pocket and mixed it in the bowl that stood on a washstand.
By the dim light of the candle the solution was a darkly turgid mess. George remembered that some shades of red appear black in a dim light, and did not hesitate.
When he had soaked his hair and rinsed it, George sat by the window, letting the night breeze blow around his ears, until it had dried. He didn’t want to get the stuff on Mathilde’s fancy towels.
George hoped Mathilde would understand. The girl who had worn the five-carat diamond certainly would not; she would consider the whole thing a flamboyant attempt to be impressive or amusing. George, himself, was ready to admit that dyeing his hair was a rather ext ravagant gesture. But Mathilde liked red hair. And George felt extravagant about Mathilde.
He discovered when he crawled between the covers that the bed had a feather tick, as blissfully soothing to his tired muscles as Mathilde’s songs were to his heart. Everything was obliterated, even curiosity about his appearance by daylight.
Sunlight, playing on his eyelids, half-wakened him. Sounds mingled in a haze of unreality a dog barking lazily, a distant bell, and an exulting hen. In a vague way, George realized that a car drove into Moule-en-Mouche and stopped, that people were talking. Someone ran up the stairs to his room. And Julian burst in.
“I decided against Percé ” Julian cried and stopped abruptly.
Rolling over in disgust. George wished Julian would go away. He might never find a feather tick again.
Julian didn’t go away. He stood, staring.
Then he crossed to the bed and pulled a single hair from George’s head. Taking it to the window, he examined it critically.
“I hope my optic nerve isn’t going,” Julian remarked, at last.
George sat up with a jerk. He remembered swiftly that he was a redhead. Flinging his long legs out of bed, he sprinted for the mirror. His reflection did not have red hair.
He ripped the glass from its hook and took it to the window. But his hair was still not red, of such a radiance. Apparently the coin had lied. It should have advised henna of the herb.
“Does my hair appear to have an orchid tinge?” he asked Julian cautiously.
“Unless we’ve both been drinking heavily over a considerable period of time,” pronounced Julian with ponderous gravity, “I should say that the color of your hair is a concentrated hue of imperial purple.”
Collapsing on the bed, George wondered if he could have had an unsuspected touch of delirium last night when he decided to dye his hair. Offhand, and by daylight, it occurred to him that only elderly ladies who harbored poodles wore dyed hair.
Continued on page 37
Of Such a Radiance
Continued jrotn page 11—Starts on page 10
“She likes red hair,” he told Julian, in dismal explanation.
“She affected me in much the same way,” Julian admitted. “The farther I went, the less attractive boats became. I decided to come back here and meet her.”
GEORGE pulled himself together and went to the washstand. He soaped the lurid patch and rinsed, soaped and rinsed again. The color remained unchanged. When the aroma of coffee invaded the room, George became frantic. He couldn’t face Mathilde. He started to hunt for his razor—anything to hack away the hideous aureole.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” shouted Julian, making a lunge for the razor.
In the struggle for possession, Julian won. The razor hurtled through the open window and took a nose dive into the onion bed of M. Rouane. George was preparing to hurl Julian after it when they heard Mathilde singing below.
“Listen!” exclaimed Julian. “That’s Véronique.”
“That’s no radio,” contradicted George. “It’s Mathilde.”
Then he realized what he should have known from the first. Mathilde, in some miraculous way, was Véronique. The only difference was that Mathilde sang naturally, as she pleased, while Véronique was surrounded with the usual radio build-up.
“You’re right,” George admitted, remembering that he had compared Véronique to a thirsty crow. There were no further depths of humiliation into which George could crawl.
“Tell Mathilde and M. Rouane that I’ve been called away,” he said, making hasty plans. “Tell them you came here with a message and I have to return to Quebec. I'll take the car and drive until I find a barber. Then I ’ll go on to Percé and wait for you.”
“Don’t wait for me. I intend to spend the rest of my holiday in Moule-en-Mouche listening to Véronique,” retorted Julian triumphantly. “I left the car parked in the lane at the side of the house.”
GEORGE had his foot on the starter when another car swung into the lane and blocked his exit. ’Toine was at the wheel. There was no way in which George could hide his vividness from ’Toine. “C'est incroyable!” gasped ’Toine. Laughing uproariously, he pulled George from the car. Hilarity brought tears to ’Toine’s eyes. They rolled down his cheeks. The people of Moule-en-Mouche ran to their doors to see why ’Toine laughed so. When they saw, they clustered around and joined their gaiety to ’Toine’s. It was a bad moment for George. Even the geraniums seemed to nod with ridicule and the onion bed to reek of it.
M. Rouane, followed by Mathilde and Julian, rushed to the street.
“Taisez-vous!" M. Rouane cried, sternly silencing his neighbors. He turned to
George. “It is my mistake. I apologize. Henna of the chemist must be used and mixed by an expert. When you asked for it, I thought you understood that.”
’Toine, still almost incoherent, flung a sustaining arm around Julian. “I shall make a song,” chuckled ’Toine. “About your friend. And about his hair. I love that George. Never have I laughed so.”
Mathilde took George’s arm and led him solicitously into the house. George closed the door. It was the only way to shut out ’Toine’s exuberance.
Going to the breakfast table, Mathilde poured out coffee for George.
“It was so cruel of you,” she chided. “To think of going away without having coffee, ! or saying au r’voir, or letting me know of your beautiful purple hair.”
“You didn’t enlighten me about the identity of Véronique,” George countered.
“What does that matter?” asked Mathilde with a shrug that banished Véronique forever. “It started when I won a contest in Montreal. The prize was an audition.
I needed money so I sang on the air. And they liked me.”
AN INDULGENT smile curved her lips. “It was to please me that you dyed your hair, non?”
George admitted it.
“But you do not love me. At least, not deeply,” Mathilde continued. “You were lonely, a little, I think? And found romance in my songs. That is all. When you are far away, I will sing the song ’Toine makes about your hair and remember your devotion.”
“You and ’Toine ...” began George.
“It was to earn money to help buy a farm that I became Véronique. ’Toine works so hard, but money accumulates slowly in Moule-en-Mouche.” Then, quite simply, she added: “I have loved ’Toine since childhood. That is my happiness. You understand?”
By all the rules of humanity, when jealous and defeated, George felt that he should have hated 'Toine in that instant. But he couldn’t. He was too busy acquiring a new viewpoint, one that made faithi lessness represented by a five-carat diamond, seem suddenly trivial.
“Yes,” he said. “I do understand.”
Before he could guess what Mathilde intended, she leaned toward him and kissed him, with generosity and understanding.
“I hope, m’nsieur,” she whispered. “That you find one of those things you search for. One of those essential values, was it not?”
George looked at Mathilde, at the blazing happiness and unswerving loyalty in her eyes, the tenderness of her lips. He thought of ’Toine’s big farmer hands that had carved a likeness of Mathilde, so beautiful that it was of a faith, or a desire.
“Thanks,” said George and discovered, somewhat to his own surprise, that he was grinning down at Mathilde. “I’ve already found one, of such a radiance!”