Sunday, June 14, 2020

"Gladys" (4)

Continued: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

Conversing about the mountains amid the drawing room chatter seemed to us a strange contradiction. All around us the talk was of trivia, gossip and sports. Women giggled; the blades of the fans softly modulated the dissonant hum of voices; jewels glittered; and chandeliers bathed all the black suits and the glamorous turn-outs in a wash of light. I admit quite frankly, even at the risk of sounding like a fool, that our private and all but flirtatious conversation appealed to me far more than did the surrounding babble.

The Dom and the Taeschhorn, a painting by Albert Gos
The Countess was full of animation. The natural grace of her gestures seemed to come from her innermost thoughts, suggesting to me that she deplored coarseness in all its forms. She spoke a very pure French. The way she rolled her ‘r’s’, her slightly exotic accent added something indefinable to her charm.

I listened to her, delighted, as she shared her thoughts with me, ingenuously, without posturing or artifice and, remarkably, without any emotional twists, something that the women described by Paul Bourget or Marcel Prévost have not accustomed us to. There are certain women, sensitive and passionate, who are transformed by love. The beauty of the feelings they carry in them irradiates, even transfigures them. And such a one was Gladys, infused as she was with her twofold love for her Earl and the mountains, which her soul reflected as if in a crystal lake.

I looked at her. As she sat back slightly in her armchair, her shoulders emerged from an exquisite Chantilly gown, its delicate tracery lapping over her bare arms. No jewellery encumbered her golden hair; two solitary pendants glinted from her ears. Large, violet, dreamy eyes; a short, straight nose, slightly turned up; dazzling teeth in a very small mouth; a delicate chin completed this picture of a society woman, as if as painted by Paul César Helleu. She was twenty-four years old, yet looked scarcely older than twenty.

Captivated by her spirit as much as by her charm and overwhelming attractiveness, I was starting to wonder if all this society stuff wasn't just nonsense, perhaps - when the Countess seemed to read my mind:

“Don’t you think so?” she smiled, “But it really is like that. Ah! How vain and selfish people are! Come on, you men are all the same! Because we're pretty, because we look frivolous, scatterbrained perhaps, because you like to admire us, you think we’re just here to divert you or liven up your life with flirting or an affair when you're bored; or add a bit of grace and poetry to your to your home or heart. Yes, it’s like that.”

She curled her lips scornfully and, without waiting for my reply, went on bitterly, as if speaking to herself:

“I hate “society”... I hate it. Everywhere, women are the target of looks that defile them. And what looks! If men knew how much contempt we have for them, they might even give up desiring us and creep back into their shells, just to preserve their own self-worth. Yes, I hate “society”. The looks on my face burn like my thoughts. I feel defenceless against this secret groping. If only I could – but what can a woman do? I’d rather live in an alpine valley, somewhere I could let my feelings bloom, lead my inner life, safe from the baseness here.”

She paused after her soliloquy, then turning to me:

“Why did I have to tell you this nonsense? Was it amusing? It’s odd, though, you're the first man, after my husband, to whom I’ve dared to say anything like that. Do you know what Oliver calls it? He calls it my romantic childishness..."

I wanted to say something, to break the awkward silence to which her words had reduced me, but she didn't give me time, and looking me straight in the eyes, somewhat like a supplicant, she asked:

“You do take me seriously, don’t you?

And then she suddenly came out with:

“Have you done the Täschhorn by the Teufelsgrat?

“No, indeed.”

“Well, neither have I; let’s make a date for next July.”

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

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