Men, Women and Ghosts by Amy Lowell
How the slates of the roof sparkle in the sun, over there, over there, beyond the high wall! How quietly the Seine runs in loops and windings, over there, over there, sliding through the green countryside! Like ships of the line, stately with canvas, the tall clouds pass along the sky, over the glittering roof, over the trees, over the looped and curving river. A breeze quivers through the linden-trees. Roses bloom at Malmaison. Roses! Roses! But the road is dusty. Already the Citoyenne Beauharnais wearies of her walk. Her skin is chalked and powdered with dust, she smells dust, and behind the wall are roses! Roses with smooth open petals, poised above rippling leaves . . . Roses . . . They have told her so. The Citoyenne Beauharnais shrugs her shoulders and makes a little face. She must mend her pace if she would be back in time for dinner. Roses indeed! The guillotine more likely.
The tiered clouds float over Malmaison, and the slate roof sparkles in the sun.
Gallop! Gallop! The General brooks no delay. Make way, good people, and scatter out of his path, you, and your hens, and your dogs, and your children. The General is returned from Egypt, and is come in a `caleche' and four to visit his new property. Throw open the gates, you, Porter of Malmaison. Pull off your cap, my man, this is your master, the husband of Madame. Faster! Faster! A jerk and a jingle and they are arrived, he and she. Madame has red eyes. Fie! It is for joy at her husband's return. Learn your place, Porter. A gentleman here for two months? Fie! Fie, then! Since when have you taken to gossiping. Madame may have a brother, I suppose. That -- all green, and red, and glitter, with flesh as dark as ebony -- that is a slave; a bloodthirsty, stabbing, slashing heathen, come from the hot countries to cure your tongue of idle whispering.
A fine afternoon it is, with tall bright clouds sailing over the trees.
"Bonaparte, mon ami, the trees are golden like my star, the star I pinned to your destiny when I married you. The gypsy, you remember her prophecy! My dear friend, not here, the servants are watching; send them away, and that flashing splendour, Roustan. Superb -- Imperial, but . . . My dear, your arm is trembling; I faint to feel it touching me! No, no, Bonaparte, not that -- spare me that -- did we not bury that last night! You hurt me, my friend, you are so hot and strong. Not long, Dear, no, thank God, not long."
The looped river runs saffron, for the sun is setting. It is getting dark. Dark. Darker. In the moonlight, the slate roof shines palely milkily white.
The roses have faded at Malmaison, nipped by the frost. What need for roses? Smooth, open petals -- her arms. Fragrant, outcurved petals -- her breasts. He rises like a sun above her, stooping to touch the petals, press them wider. Eagles. Bees. What are they to open roses! A little shivering breeze runs through the linden-trees, and the tiered clouds blow across the sky like ships of the line, stately with canvas.
The gates stand wide at Malmaison, stand wide all day. The gravel of the avenue glints under the continual rolling of wheels. An officer gallops up with his sabre clicking; a mameluke gallops down with his charger kicking. `Valets de pied' run about in ones, and twos, and groups, like swirled blown leaves. Tramp! Tramp! The guard is changing, and the grenadiers off duty lounge out of sight, ranging along the roads toward Paris.
The slate roof sparkles in the sun, but it sparkles milkily, vaguely, the great glass-houses put out its shining. Glass, stone, and onyx now for the sun's mirror. Much has come to pass at Malmaison. New rocks and fountains, blocks of carven marble, fluted pillars uprearing antique temples, vases and urns in unexpected places, bridges of stone, bridges of wood, arbours and statues, and a flood of flowers everywhere, new flowers, rare flowers, parterre after parterre of flowers. Indeed, the roses bloom at Malmaison. It is youth, youth untrammeled and advancing, trundling a country ahead of it as though it were a hoop. Laughter, and spur janglings in tessellated vestibules. Tripping of clocked and embroidered stockings in little low-heeled shoes over smooth grass-plots. India muslins spangled with silver patterns slide through trees -- mingle -- separate -- white day fireflies flashing moon-brilliance in the shade of foliage.
"The kangaroos! I vow, Captain, I must see the kangaroos."
"As you please, dear Lady, but I recommend the shady linden alley and feeding the cockatoos."
"They say that Madame Bonaparte's breed of sheep is the best in all France."
"And, oh, have you seen the enchanting little cedar she planted when the First Consul sent home the news of the victory of Marengo?"
Picking, choosing, the chattering company flits to and fro. Over the trees the great clouds go, tiered, stately, like ships of the line bright with canvas.
Prisoners'-base, and its swooping, veering, racing, giggling, bumping. The First Consul runs plump into M. de Beauharnais and falls. But he picks himself up smartly, and starts after M. Isabey. Too late, M. Le Premier Consul, Mademoiselle Hortense is out after you. Quickly, my dear Sir! Stir your short legs, she is swift and eager, and as graceful as her mother. She is there, that other, playing too, but lightly, warily, bearing herself with care, rather floating out upon the air than running, never far from goal. She is there, borne up above her guests as something indefinably fair, a rose above periwinkles. A blown rose, smooth as satin, reflexed, one loosened petal hanging back and down. A rose that undulates languorously as the breeze takes it, resting upon its leaves in a faintness of perfume.
There are rumours about the First Consul. Malmaison is full of women, and Paris is only two leagues distant. Madame Bonaparte stands on the wooden bridge at sunset, and watches a black swan pushing the pink and silver water in front of him as he swims, crinkling its smoothness into pleats of changing colour with his breast. Madame Bonaparte presses against the parapet of the bridge, and the crushed roses at her belt melt, petal by petal, into the pink water.
A vile day, Porter. But keep your wits about you. The Empress will soon be here. Queer, without the Emperor! It is indeed, but best not consider that. Scratch your head and prick up your ears. Divorce is not for you to debate about. She is late? Ah, well, the roads are muddy. The rain spears are as sharp as whetted knives. They dart down and down, edged and shining. Clop-trop! Clop-trop! A carriage grows out of the mist. Hist, Porter. You can keep on your hat. It is only Her Majesty's dogs and her parrot. Clop-trop! The Ladies in Waiting, Porter. Clop-trop! It is Her Majesty. At least, I suppose it is, but the blinds are drawn.
"In all the years I have served Her Majesty she never before passed the gate without giving me a smile!"
You're a droll fellow, to expect the Empress to put out her head in the pouring rain and salute you. She has affairs of her own to think about.
Clang the gate, no need for further waiting, nobody else will be coming to Malmaison to-night.
White under her veil, drained and shaking, the woman crosses the antechamber. Empress! Empress! Foolish splendour, perished to dust. Ashes of roses, ashes of youth. Empress forsooth!
Over the glass domes of the hot-houses drenches the rain. Behind her a clock ticks -- ticks again. The sound knocks upon her thought with the echoing shudder of hollow vases. She places her hands on her ears, but the minutes pass, knocking. Tears in Malmaison. And years to come each knocking by, minute after minute. Years, many years, and tears, and cold pouring rain.
"I feel as though I had died, and the only sensation I have is that I am no more."
Rain! Heavy, thudding rain!
The roses bloom at Malmaison. And not only roses. Tulips, myrtles, geraniums, camelias, rhododendrons, dahlias, double hyacinths. All the year through, under glass, under the sky, flowers bud, expand, die, and give way to others, always others. From distant countries they have been brought, and taught to live in the cool temperateness of France. There is the `Bonapartea' from Peru; the `Napoleone Imperiale'; the `Josephinia Imperatrix', a pearl-white flower, purple-shadowed, the calix pricked out with crimson points. Malmaison wears its flowers as a lady wears her gems, flauntingly, assertively. Malmaison decks herself to hide the hollow within.
The glass-houses grow and grow, and every year fling up hotter reflections to the sailing sun.
The cost runs into millions, but a woman must have something to console herself for a broken heart. One can play backgammon and patience, and then patience and backgammon, and stake gold napoleons on each game won. Sport truly! It is an unruly spirit which could ask better. With her jewels, her laces, her shawls; her two hundred and twenty dresses, her fichus, her veils; her pictures, her busts, her birds. It is absurd that she cannot be happy. The Emperor smarts under the thought of her ingratitude. What could he do more? And yet she spends, spends as never before. It is ridiculous. Can she not enjoy life at a smaller figure? Was ever monarch plagued with so extravagant an ex-wife. She owes her chocolate-merchant, her candle-merchant, her sweetmeat purveyor; her grocer, her butcher, her poulterer; her architect, and the shopkeeper who sells her rouge; her perfumer, her dressmaker, her merchant of shoes. She owes for fans, plants, engravings, and chairs. She owes masons and carpenters, vintners, lingeres. The lady's affairs are in sad confusion.
And why? Why?
Can a river flow when the spring is dry?
Night. The Empress sits alone, and the clock ticks, one after one. The clock nicks off the edges of her life. She is chipped like an old bit of china; she is frayed like a garment of last year's wearing. She is soft, crinkled, like a fading rose. And each minute flows by brushing against her, shearing off another and another petal. The Empress crushes her breasts with her hands and weeps. And the tall clouds sail over Malmaison like a procession of stately ships bound for the moon.
Scarlet, clear-blue, purple epauletted with gold. It is a parade of soldiers sweeping up the avenue. Eight horses, eight Imperial harnesses, four caparisoned postilions, a carriage with the Emperor's arms on the panels. Ho, Porter, pop out your eyes, and no wonder. Where else under the Heavens could you see such splendour!
They sit on a stone seat. The little man in the green coat of a Colonel of Chasseurs, and the lady, beautiful as a satin seed-pod, and as pale. The house has memories. The satin seed-pod holds his germs of Empire. We will stay here, under the blue sky and the turreted white clouds. She draws him; he feels her faded loveliness urge him to replenish it. Her soft transparent texture woos his nervous fingering. He speaks to her of debts, of resignation; of her children, and his; he promises that she shall see the King of Rome; he says some harsh things and some pleasant. But she is there, close to him, rose toned to amber, white shot with violet, pungent to his nostrils as embalmed rose-leaves in a twilit room.
Suddenly the Emperor calls his carriage and rolls away across the looping Seine.
Crystal-blue brightness over the glass-houses. Crystal-blue streaks and ripples over the lake. A macaw on a gilded perch screams; they have forgotten to take out his dinner. The windows shake. Boom! Boom! It is the rumbling of Prussian cannon beyond Pecq. Roses bloom at Malmaison. Roses! Roses! Swimming above their leaves, rotting beneath them. Fallen flowers strew the unraked walks. Fallen flowers for a fallen Emperor! The General in charge of him draws back and watches. Snatches of music -- snarling, sneering music of bagpipes. They say a Scotch regiment is besieging Saint-Denis. The Emperor wipes his face, or is it his eyes. His tired eyes which see nowhere the grace they long for. Josephine! Somebody asks him a question, he does not answer, somebody else does that. There are voices, but one voice he does not hear, and yet he hears it all the time. Josephine! The Emperor puts up his hand to screen his face. The white light of a bright cloud spears sharply through the linden-trees. `Vive l'Empereur!' There are troops passing beyond the wall, troops which sing and call. Boom! A pink rose is jarred off its stem and falls at the Emperor's feet.
"Very well. I go." Where! Does it matter? There is no sword to clatter. Nothing but soft brushing gravel and a gate which shuts with a click.
"Quick, fellow, don't spare your horses."
A whip cracks, wheels turn, why burn one's eyes following a fleck of dust.
Over the slate roof tall clouds, like ships of the line, pass along the sky. The glass-houses glitter splotchily, for many of their lights are broken. Roses bloom, fiery cinders quenching under damp weeds. Wreckage and misery, and a trailing of petty deeds smearing over old recollections.
The musty rooms are empty and their shutters are closed, only in the gallery there is a stuffed black swan, covered with dust. When you touch it, the feathers come off and float softly to the ground. Through a chink in the shutters, one can see the stately clouds crossing the sky toward the Roman arches of the Marly Aqueduct.