The morning after Robert had told me all these things about his uncle while waiting for him (as it happened in vain), as I was passing the Casino alone on my way back to the hotel, I had the sensation of being watched by somebody who was not far off. I turned my head and saw a man of about forty, very tall and rather stout, with a very black moustache, who, nervously slapping the leg of his trousers with a switch, was staring at me, his eyes dilated with extreme attentiveness. From time to time these eyes were shot through by a look of restless activity such as the sight of a person they do not know excites only in men in whom, for whatever reason, it inspires thoughts that would not occur to anyone else—madmen, for instance, or spies. He darted a final glance at me that was at once bold, prudent, rapid and profound, like a last shot which one fires at an enemy as one turns to flee, and, after first looking all round him, suddenly adopting an absent and lofty air, with an abrupt revolution of his whole person he turned towards a playbill in the reading of which he became absorbed, while he hummed a tune and fingered the moss-rose in his buttonhole. He drew from his pocket a note-book in which he appeared to be taking down the title of the performance that was announced, looked at his watch two or three times, pulled down over his eyes a black straw hat the brim of which he extended with his hand held out over it like an eye-shade, as though to see whether someone was coming at last, made the perfunctory gesture of annoyance by which people mean to show that they have waited long enough, although they never make it when they are really waiting, then pushing back his hat and exposing a scalp cropped close except at the sides where he allowed a pair of waved “pigeon’s-wings” to grow quite long, he emitted the loud panting breath that people exhale not when they are too hot but when they wish it to be thought that they are too hot. He gave me the impression of a hotel crook who, having been watching my grandmother and myself for some days, and planning to rob us, had just discovered that I had caught him in the act of spying on me. Perhaps he was only seeking by his new attitude to express abstractedness and detachment in order to put me off the scent, but it was with an exaggeration so aggressive that his object appeared to be—at least as much as the dissipating of the suspicions he might have aroused in me—to avenge a humiliation which I must unwittingly have inflicted on him, to give me the idea not so much that he had not seen me as that I was an object of too little importance to attract his attention. He threw back his shoulders with an air of bravado, pursed his lips, twisted his moustache, and adjusted his face into an expression that was at once indifferent, harsh, and almost insulting. So much so that I took him at one moment for a thief and at another for a lunatic. And yet his scrupulously ordered attire was far more sober and far more simple than that of any of the summer visitors I saw at Balbec, and reassured me as to my own suit, so often humiliated by the usual dazzling whiteness of their holiday garb. But my grandmother was coming towards me, we took a turn together, and I was waiting for her, an hour later, outside the hotel into which she had gone for a moment, when I saw emerge from it Mme de Villeparisis with Robert de Saint-Loup and the stranger who had stared at me so intently outside the Casino. Swift as a lightning-flash his look shot through me, just as at that moment when I first noticed him, and returned, as though he had not seen me, to hover, slightly lowered, before his eyes, deadened, like the neutral look which feigns to see nothing without and is incapable of reporting anything to the mind within, the look which expresses merely the satisfaction of feeling round it the eyelids which it keeps apart with its beatific roundness, the devout and sanctimonious look that we see on the faces of certain hypocrites, the smug look on those of certain fools. I saw that he had changed his clothes. The suit he was wearing was darker even than the other; and no doubt true elegance lies nearer to simplicity than false; but there was something more: from close at hand one felt that if colour was almost entirely absent from these garments it was not because he who had banished it from them was indifferent to it but rather because for some reason he forbade himself the enjoyment of it. And the sobriety which they displayed seemed to be of the kind that comes from obedience to a rule of diet rather than from lack of appetite. A dark green thread harmonised, in the stuff of his trousers, with the stripe on his socks, with a refinement which betrayed the vivacity of a taste that was everywhere else subdued, to which this single concession had been made out of tolerance, while a spot of red on his tie was imperceptible, like a liberty which one dares not take.
“How are you? Let me introduce my nephew, the Baron de Guermantes,” Mme de Villeparisis said to me, while the stranger, without looking at me, muttering a vague “Charmed!” which he followed with a “H’m, h’m, h’m,” to make his affability seem somehow forced, and crooking his little finger, forefinger and thumb, held out to me his middle and ring fingers, destitute of rings, which I clasped through his suede glove; then, without lifting his eyes to my face, he turned towards Mme de Villeparisis.
“Good gracious, I shall be forgetting my own name next!” she exclaimed with a laugh. “Here am I calling you Baron de Guermantes. Let me introduce the Baron de Charlus. But after all, it’s not a very serious mistake,” she went on, “for you’re a thorough Guermantes all the same.”
By this time my grandmother had reappeared, and we all set out together. Saint-Loup’s uncle declined to honour me not only with a word but with so much as a look in my direction. If he stared strangers out of countenance (and during this short excursion he two or three times hurled his terrible and searching scrutiny like a sounding-lead at insignificant people of the most humble extraction who happened to pass), on the other hand he never for a moment, if I was to judge by myself, looked at persons whom he knew—as a detective on a secret mission might except his personal friends from his professional vigilance. Leaving my grandmother, Mme de Villeparisis and him to talk to one another, I fell behind with Saint-Loup.
“Tell me, am I right in thinking I heard Mme de Villeparisis say just now to your uncle that he was a Guermantes?”
“Of course he is: Palamède de Guermantes.”
“Not the same Guermantes who have a place near Combray, and claim descent from Geneviève de Brabant?”
“Most certainly: my uncle, who is the very last word in heraldry and all that sort of thing, would tell you that our ‘cry’, our war-cry, that is to say, which was changed afterwards to ‘Passavant’ was originally ‘Combraysis,’” he said, smiling so as not to appear to be priding himself on this prerogative of a “cry,” which only the quasi-royal houses, the great chiefs of feudal bands, enjoyed. “It’s his brother who has the place now.”
Outside the Grand Hotel the three Guermantes left us; they were going to luncheon with the Princesse de Luxembourg. While my grandmother was saying good-bye to Mme de Villeparisis and Saint-Loup to my grandmother, M. de Charlus, who up till then had not addressed a single word to me, drew back from the group and arriving at my side, said to me: “I shall be taking tea this evening after dinner in my aunt Villeparisis’s room. I hope that you will give me the pleasure of seeing you there with your grandmother.” With which he rejoined the Marquise.
I had supposed that in thus inviting us to take tea with his aunt, whom I never doubted that he would have warned of our coming, M. de Charlus wished to make amends for the impoliteness which he had shown me during our walk that morning. But when, on our entering Mme de Villeparisis’s room, I attempted to greet her nephew, for all that I walked right round him while in shrill accents he was telling a somewhat spiteful story about one of his relatives, I could not succeed in catching his eye. I decided to say “Good evening” to him, and fairly loud, to warn him of my presence; but I realised that he had observed it, for before ever a word had passed my lips, just as I was beginning to bow to him, I saw his two fingers held out for me to shake without his having turned to look at me or paused in his story. He had evidently seen me, without letting it appear that he had, and I noticed then that his eyes, which were never fixed on the person to whom he was speaking, strayed perpetually in all directions, like those of certain frightened animals, or those of street hawkers who, while delivering their patter and displaying their illicit merchandise, keep a sharp look-out, though without turning their heads, on the different points of the horizon from which the police may appear at any moment. At the same time I was a little surprised to find that Mme de Villeparisis, while glad to see us, did not seem to have been expecting us, and I was still more surprised to hear M. de Charlus say to my grandmother: “Ah! what a capital idea of yours to come and pay us a visit! Charming of them, is it not, my dear aunt?” No doubt he had noticed his aunt’s surprise at our entry and thought, as a man accustomed to set the tone, that it would be enough to transform that surprise into joy were he to show that he himself felt it, that it was indeed the feeling which our arrival there ought to prompt. In which he calculated wisely; for Mme de Villeparisis, who had a high opinion of her nephew and knew how difficult it was to please him, appeared suddenly to have found new attractions in my grandmother and welcomed her with open arms. But I failed to understand how M. de Charlus could, in the space of a few hours, have forgotten the invitation—so curt but apparently so intentional, so premeditated—which he addressed to me that same morning, or why he called a “capital idea” on my grandmother’s part an idea that had been entirely his own. With a regard for accuracy which I retained until I had reached the age at which I realised that it was not by questioning him that one learns the truth of what another man has had in mind, and that the risk of misunderstanding which will probably pass unobserved is less than that which may come from a purblind insistence: “But, Monsieur,” I reminded him, “you remember, surely, that it was you who asked me if we would come round this evening?” Not a sound, not a movement betrayed that M. de Charlus had so much as heard my question. Seeing which, I repeated it, like diplomats or like young men after a misunderstanding who endeavour, with untiring and unrewarded zeal, to obtain an explanation which their adversary is determined not to give them. Still M. de Charlus answered me not a word. I seemed to see hovering upon his lips the smile of those who from a great height pass judgment on the character and breeding of their inferiors.
Since he refused all explanation, I tried to provide one for myself, but succeeded only in hesitating between several, none of which might have been the right one. Perhaps he did not remember, or perhaps it was I who had failed to understand what he had said to me that morning… More probably, in his pride, he did not wish to appear to have sought the company of people he despised, and preferred to cast upon them the responsibility for their intrusion. But then, if he despised us, why had he been so anxious that we should come, or rather that my grandmother should come, for of the two of us it was to her alone that he spoke that evening, and never once to me? Talking with the utmost animation to her, as also to Mme de Villeparisis, hiding, so to speak, behind them as though he were seated at the back of a theatre-box, he merely turned from them every now and then the searching gaze of his penetrating eyes and fastened it on my face, with the same gravity, the same air of preoccupation, as if it had been a manuscript difficult to decipher.
No doubt, had it not been for those eyes, M. de Charlus’s face would have been similar to the faces of many good-looking men. And when Saint-Loup, speaking to me of various other Guermantes, said on a later occasion: “Admittedly, they don’t have that thoroughbred air, that look of being noblemen to their finger-tips, that uncle Palamède has,” confirming my suspicion that a thoroughbred air and aristocratic distinction were not something mysterious and new but consisted in elements which I had recognised without difficulty and without receiving any particular impression from them, I was to feel that another of my illusions had been shattered. But however much M. de Charlus tried to seal hermetically the expression on that face, to which a light coating of powder lent a faintly theatrical aspect, the eyes were like two crevices, two loop-holes which alone he had failed to block, and through which, according to one’s position in relation to him, one suddenly felt oneself in the path of some hidden weapon which seemed to bode no good, even to him who, without being altogether master of it, carried it within himself in a state of precarious equilibrium and always on the verge of explosion; and the circumspect and unceasingly restless expression of those eyes, with all the signs of exhaustion which the heavy pouches beneath them stamped upon his face, however carefully he might compose and regulate it, made one think of some incognito, some disguise assumed by a powerful man in danger, or merely by a dangerous—but tragic—individual. I should have liked to divine what was this secret which other men did not carry in their breasts and which had already made M. de Charlus’s stare seem to me so enigmatic when I had seen him that morning outside the Casino. But with what I now knew of his family I could no longer believe that it was that of a thief, nor, after what I had heard of his conversation, of a madman. If he was so cold towards me, while making himself so agreeable to my grandmother, this did not perhaps arise from any personal antipathy, for in general, to the extent that he was kindly disposed towards women, of whose faults he spoke without, as a rule, departing from the utmost tolerance, he displayed towards men, and especially young men, a hatred so violent as to suggest that of certain misogynists for women. Of two or three “gigolos,” relatives or intimate friends of Saint-Loup, who happened to mention their names, M. de Charlus remarked with an almost ferocious expression in sharp contrast to his usual coldness: “Young scum!” I gathered that the particular fault which he found in the young men of the day was their effeminacy. “They’re nothing but women,” he said with scorn. But what life would not have appeared effeminate beside that which he expected a man to lead, and never found energetic or virile enough? (He himself, when he walked across country, after long hours on the road would plunge his heated body into frozen streams.) He would not even concede that a man should wear a single ring.
But this obsession with virility did not prevent his having also the most delicate sensibilities. When Mme de Villeparisis asked him to describe to my grandmother some country house in which Mme de Sévigné had stayed, adding that she could not help feeling that there was something rather “literary” about that lady’s distress at being parted from “that tiresome Mme de Grignan”:
“On the contrary,” he retorted, “I can think of nothing more genuine. Besides, it was a time in which feelings of that sort were thoroughly understood. The inhabitant of La Fontaine’s Monomotapa, running round to see his friend who had appeared to him in a dream looking rather sad, the pigeon finding that the greatest of evils is the absence of the other pigeon, seem to you perhaps, my dear aunt, as exaggerated as Mme de Sévigné’s impatience for the moment when she will be alone with her daughter. It’s so beautiful, what she says when she leaves her: ‘This parting gives a pain to my soul which I feel like an ache in my body. In absence one is liberal with the hours. One anticipates a time for which one is longing.’”
My grandmother was delighted to hear the Letters thus spoken of, exactly as she would have spoken of them herself. She was astonished that a man could understand them so well. She found in M. de Charlus a delicacy, a sensibility that were quite feminine. We said to each other afterwards, when we were by ourselves and discussed him together, that he must have come under the strong influence of a woman—his mother, or in later life his daughter if he had any children. “A mistress,” I thought to myself, remembering the influence which Saint-Loup’s seemed to have had over him and which enabled me to realise the degree to which men can be refined by the women with whom they live.
In these reflexions upon the sadness of having to live apart from those one loves (which were to lead my grandmother to say to me that Mme de Villeparisis’s nephew understood certain things a great deal better than his aunt, and moreover had something about him that set him far above the average clubman) M. de Charlus not only revealed a refinement of feeling such as men rarely show; his voice itself, like certain contralto voices in which the middle register has not been sufficiently cultivated, so that when they sing it sounds like an alternating duet between a young man and a woman, mounted, when he expressed these delicate sentiments, to its higher notes, took on an unexpected sweetness and seemed to embody choirs of betrothed maidens, of sisters, pouring out their fond feelings. But the bevy of young girls whom M. de Charlus in his horror of every kind of effeminacy would have been so distressed to learn that he gave the impression of sheltering thus within his voice did not confine themselves to the interpretation, the modulation of sentimental ditties. Often while M. de Charlus was talking one could hear their laughter, the shrill, fresh laughter of school-girls or coquettes twitting their companions with all the mischievousness of sharp tongues and quick wits.
Meanwhile my grandmother had been making signs to me to go up to bed, in spite of the urgent appeals of Saint-Loup who, to my utter shame, had alluded in front of M. de Charlus to the depression which used often to come upon me at night before I went to sleep, and which his uncle must regard as betokening a sad want of virility. I lingered a few moments still, then went upstairs, and was greatly surprised when, a little later, having heard a knock at my bedroom door and asked who was there, I heard the voice of M. de Charlus saying dryly: “It is Charlus. May I come in, Monsieur? Monsieur,” he continued in the same tone as soon as he had shut the door, “my nephew was saying just now that you were apt to be a little upset at night before going to sleep, and also that you were an admirer of Bergotte’s books. As I had one here in my luggage which you probably do not know, I have brought it to you to while away these moments during which you are unhappy.”
I thanked M. de Charlus warmly and told him that I had been afraid that what Saint-Loup had said to him about my distress at the approach of night would have made me appear in his eyes even more stupid than I was.
“Not at all,” he answered in a gentler voice. “You have not, perhaps, any personal merit—I’ve no idea, so few people have! But for a time at least you have youth, and that is always an attraction. Besides, Monsieur, the greatest folly of all is to mock or to condemn in others what one does not happen to feel oneself. I love the night, and you tell me that you dread it. I love the scent of roses, and I have a friend whom it throws into a fever. Do you suppose that for that reason I consider him inferior to me? I try to understand everything and I take care to condemn nothing. In short, you must not be too sorry for yourself; I do not say that these moods of depression are not painful, I know how much one can suffer from things which others would not understand. But at least you have placed your affection wisely in your grandmother. You see a great deal of her. And besides, it is a legitimate affection, I mean one that is repaid. There are so many of which that cannot be said!”
He walked up and down the room, looking at one thing, picking up another. I had the impression that he had something to tell me, and could not find the right words to express it.
“I have another volume of Bergotte here. I will have it fetched for you,” he went on, and rang the bell. Presently a page came. “Go and find me your head waiter. He is the only person here who is capable of performing an errand intelligently,” said M. de Charlus stiffly. “Monsieur Aimé, sir?” asked the page. “I cannot tell you his name. Ah yes, I remember now, I did hear him called Aimé. Run along, I’m in a hurry.” “He won’t be a minute, sir, I saw him downstairs just now,” said the page, anxious to appear efficient. A few minutes went by. The page returned. “Sir, M. Aimé has gone to bed. But I can take a message.” “No, you must get him out of bed.” “But I can’t do that, sir; he doesn’t sleep here.” “Then you can leave us alone.”
“But, Monsieur,” I said when the page had gone, “you are too kind; one volume of Bergotte will be quite enough.”
“That is just what I was thinking, after all.” M. de Charlus continued to walk up and down the room. Several minutes passed in this way, then after a few moments’ hesitation and several false starts, he swung sharply round and, in his earlier biting tone of voice, flung at me: “Good night, Monsieur!” and left the room.
After all the lofty sentiments which I had heard him express that evening, next day, which was the day of his departure, on the beach in the morning, as I was on my way down to bathe, when M. de Charlus came across to tell me that my grandmother was waiting for me to join her as soon as I left the water, I was greatly surprised to hear him say, pinching my neck as he spoke with a familiarity and a laugh that were frankly vulgar: “But he doesn’t care a fig for his old grandmother, does he, eh? Little rascal!”
“What, Monsieur! I adore her!”
“Monsieur,” he said stepping back a pace, and with a glacial air, “you are still young; you should profit by your youth to learn two things: first, to refrain from expressing sentiments that are too natural not to be taken for granted; and secondly not to rush into speech in reply to things that are said to you before you have penetrated their meaning. If you had taken this precaution a moment ago you would have saved yourself the appearance of speaking at cross-purposes like a deaf man, thereby adding a second absurdity to that of having anchors embroidered on your bathing-dress. I have lent you a book by Bergotte which I require. See that it is brought to me within the next hour by that head waiter with the absurd and inappropriate name, who, I suppose, is not in bed at this time of day. You make me realise that I was premature in speaking to you last night of the charms of youth. I should have done you a greater service had I pointed out to you its thoughtlessness, its inconsequence, and its want of comprehension. I hope, Monsieur, that this little douche will be no less salutary to you than your bathe. But don’t let me keep you standing: you may catch cold. Good day, Monsieur.”