As she looked out the window toward the Gare du Nord, she briefly reflected on the fact, of which she was certain, that her husband had been sodomized by Arthur Rimbaud, although she was never at all certain where or when or how often. Through the many years since Charles’ death and his, it was always a brief reflection, really more visitation than reflection, as it was hardly something she cared to dwell on.
“I cannot believe that our mutual affections would come as much of a surprise to society, or to either of our families,” Charles had said to her rather abruptly, but gently, with a gentle smile, as they dined quietly near the Opéra-Comique. She faintly smiled in reply. “Do forgive my presumption,” he added.
“Oh! there is hardly anything to forgive. I am nonplussed but not displeased,” she said. Mme. Guelton was a petite young lady at that time. Over the years she seemed to grow taller as her features, their very bones themselves, evolved into more angular dispositions. She never took on much weight, if any, especially as there were no pregnancies, while her face grew gaunt, not unattractively so yet reposed in an odd vacuity. Simone was justly regarded as highly intelligent but in truth she distrusted the undue exercise of any such virtue.
“I have so enjoyed the time we’ve shared in Paris.”
“As have I,” she smiled more broadly. He was quintessentially presentable, his beard stylishly pointed, all his cravats and tight-fitting waistcoats imaginatively designed in floral patterns amid muted colors.
They never discussed having children or not having them. When their friends had families, they’d remark on the fact each time, extend their very best wishes, and continue on almost indifferently. It may have been the constant travel that preoccupied their attentions instead. On her side, the Remoulets retailed precious stones, and Charles would frequently accompany them with his wife on trips to wholesalers nearly everywhere in Europe. His relationship with her family was mutually gratifying. The Gueltons imported and exported coffee – the irony would hardly have been lost on her, later, that Rimbaud was to end his life as a captain of that very industry – and they were often off to more distant climes in search of beans. Almost equally often, Charles traveled without the pleasure of her company. Amid those reflections that were really visitations, it surely must have occurred to her that his path and Rimbaud’s could have crossed at many junctures throughout the continent and beyond. It may even have occurred to her that some intentional congruence of itineraries was in effect.
She had met Rimbaud three times, first in Douai where she and Charles stopped after a tour of the Ardennes in order to call on a Remoulet family friend who taught at the university there. Prulliere invited them to a reception hosted by a colleague, and attended by three rather dowdy ladies along with their nephew, who was Rimbaud. He said very little, inquired as to Charles’ business, and commented that everything might soon change as a result of the war. “It is most unfortunate,” Charles replied. “I expect a speedy success, however.”
“You’re fortunate to still be traveling,” he said. When Simone approached from across the floor, Rimbaud muttered a salutation and excused himself.
“A distressing situation,” Prulliere advised them afterward. “He is staying here with his aunts but will likely return soon to his mother, who calls herself a widow even though her husband is very much alive somewhere.”
Later, when Rimbaud’s behavior along with his poems seized the public fancy, she shuddered to remember meeting him. Charles at the time seemed to barely remember doing so. Yet the stories that were being told! “Wasn’t there a poet at our wedding?” he had asked before, when they were still alone in Douai.
“An Englishman, a friend of your father’s, a visiting professor.”
“Ah.” The wedding, which had taken place in the Ardennes, in a garden just outside Charleville, was lavishly floral with peonies and sunflowers. Limpid swirls of silk hung from tent poles, easily unfurled for shelter in case of rain, although it remained brilliantly sunny throughout. There was a gazebo in the center of the park in which guests milled all during the day, a select coterie of likeminded celebrants trading tales and winks and nods from which even bride and groom were tacitly excluded. A small grove of apple trees stood outside the perimeter.
“Ah,” he spoke to another matter. “Didn’t Prulliere say that young man we met this evening was from Charleville?”
“I believe so, but I most remember his confidences some time later. His mother was born to a family of reprobates. Prulliere was saying he does not therefore believe she is to be judged for her forbidding manner. Then you came by…”
“Ah, and Prulliere was then saying the young man had designated his own mother a ‘mouth of darkness.’”
The war had started six weeks before the conversations in Douai. Now there were more than loud rumors of another, although she could see no soldiers at the Gare du Nord. To whatever extent she was able to focus her thinking, there really wasn’t all that much to think about. There were only ambiguous noises from Bethmann-Hollweg, readable moves by him toward stronger support of Austria; readable moves toward Russia by an increasingly belligerent Poincaré. She couldn’t read the British had she tried. The Russians confused her altogether. She had forebodings but was not personally afraid. She was too old for that. But she wondered about the world and vaguely sensed what seemed to her inexorable decrepitude. Things change, transformations are inevitable. She hadn’t changed. She was untransformed. And the ministers of state prated on in public while in camera were helpless to forestall or reverse their own inexplicable machinations. It was said that plans existed for a sweeping encirclement via Belgium.
Belgium! It was in Brussels that she first sensed his presence somewhere nearby. But she drove the ghost away and made small talk with Charles whose manner, courtly if a mite rigid, was unchanged. Eight more times she would sense his presence, in Oostend and London, in Charleroi, twice during separate trips to Paris, and once each time in Stuttgart , Milan, and Brindisi. It was in Paris, almost forty years ago, that she had stood at an open-air bookseller’s on the river and, with Notre-Dame looming ahead, lingered to read bits from the book he had written. Bruller, the wine merchant who knew everyone, said the book was inspired by the scandalous affair with Verlaine. Bruller’s associate Zelinsky could see she didn’t know who Verlaine was, and graciously told her. The rope tightened. She put the book down and picked it up again. There was a “vierge folle” referenced and, worse, a “l’époux infernal” who apparently, based on her quick perusal, was not Verlaine but Rimbaud himself. She finally crossed over to the Right Bank, for eternal moments unable to cease thinking through the implications. When she did escape the terrible reflections, the brutal fact itself was nonetheless now utterly confirmed and permanently ensconced in her consciousness and, because of the book, defined also in all its unseemly specificity.
That night she sat numbly and, at the sparsest intervals she could manage, pondered the enormity of the matter. Why had Charles never evidenced a single trace of what she knew to be incontrovertible? “Are the Raynauds still joining us at theater tomorrow?” was all he said then, and then he said, “Excellent,” when she confirmed they were.
“I was recalling the awful story Bruller’s friend Zelinsky told about that strange young man we met in Douai. Was this Verlaine married?” Her voice was steady, impervious to self-betrayal.
“Yes,” said Charles, equally steady, impervious to self-betrayal. “What made you wonder or care to?”
“I couldn’t remember if it was mentioned.”
“Why such interest?” he repeated, but she ignored the question. Charles added, “She was pregnant at the time.”
“Was that possible?” she asked.
“Apparently so, if Verlaine was the father.”
It was many years later that she had the dream that would force itself to stay with her ever after, or at least there were two brief moments of the dream that lived on as such. It was, she knew, Verlaine’s wife who seized her hand and said, “Our husbands have been husbanded,” in a cloying tone of presumed commiseration based on common suffering that was itself as sickening to Simone as its factual cause. In the other moment, Verlaine’s wife was outraged, insisting that Simone leave and never speak to her again. That it was Mme. Verlaine’s rather than her own denunciation that rang out in the phantasm, disturbed her as well. If nothing else, a sense of the immense oddity of the situation isolated her at every turn. The world must be allowed to know even less than she did. But she herself would still have to know what the world was not knowing.
So she and Charles continued to maintain their status quo during subsequent years uninfected by the troubling fact itself, or the possibility of an untenable imagery rising up before her. She occupied herself with the small affairs of Europe. Only the sense of Rimbaud’s hidden nearby presence in their itineraries still hovered unsettlingly. In Stuttgart, that presentiment was to prove more than fanciful. Simone was alone, Charles that day on a brief trip for business to Leonberg. She strolled down the long lobby of the department store, a profusion of mirrors in multiple shapes and sizes leading to the exit. There were small square gilded wood mirrors shaped like dragons that could, it seemed, provide reflections from the shoulders up only. Other mirrors were by contrast so long, longer than any human body, that one instinctively expected a distorted, almost circus-like creature to be returned to view as one approached the glass. These leaned against the walls like vagrant appurtenances. Above them and on their further side were multifaceted mirrors, three or four attached panels each giving back a different contiguous angle of whatever stood before them. Beyond the mirrors on the near side of the exit, opulent sofas and contrastingly rigid chairs sprawled, yet each with some rococo distinction to remind the store’s patrons which country they were in and that the last century’s excesses of taste were not aberrational or, if they were, that the aberration had absorbed itself into the general tastes of the parvenus as well.
He seemed to have been waiting there for her by the exit. His shabby jacket and thinning pants were an obvious contrast to the storefront and the expensive items arrayed for the visitor upon entrance. “Hello, hello,” he said.
“Hello,” she said, and before she could somehow caution him against this inappropriate presumption on her company, he said, “We met you may recall in Douai, otherwise I wouldn’t disturb you like this. But I thought you and your husband were very charming, very charming, so I thought I’d just ask how the two of you are faring these days. You’ll recall I was concerned as to the effects of the war on his…on his…his prospects.”
“I don’t recall that, I’m afraid.”
“Your husband’s name was Charles as I recall. I am so sorry, I cannot recall yours.” His voice seemed to reverberate on its own odd scale, so that one word might be a veritable screech while the next would plunge down to a near basso profundo.
“No need to apologize. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment,” and she began to walk off. But he followed her, his wild hair parted broadly on the left yet flailing on either side against his temples.
“I’ll presume to accompany you for a few minutes,” he said, daring if not hostile in tone. “I imagine you and Charles have fared well…I came here to Stuttgart to see an old friend, and it was not a happy reunion.” She suddenly shuddered to think it was Verlaine; it could have been anyone else, of course, but she thought of the scandal. “He has been transformed and I fear he did not weather well the sea change.”
“My regrets,” said Simone, not sure how to shake him off. She felt so close, so undesirably close to him, and to what he was to them and likely to everyone who knew him. It was an affront, a violation she could not at that instant think beyond. She stepped up her pace.
“Most of the time, people aren’t transformed, only their content is transformed,” he said.
“Sir, your meaning eludes me.”
“I mean what I say,” he now said with some malicious nuance that unnerved her as she walked. Elm trees from a small park loomed over them as they passed it. “That you can transform someone inside without transforming their selves. It’s the content you’re transforming, not their self.”
“But is that not the same thing?” she asked, not interested at all in his raving yet unable to find anything else to say and, for reasons she could not understand, still impelled to say something.
“No, no, I’m talking about the contents of the self like mucous, saliva, and especially…” And then he said the obscene word that she had dreaded to ever hear him say.
“How dare you speak like that!”
“But that’s what you really transform, that’s the stuff you really transform. Not the person, not the gut, just the…” and again he uttered the obscene word. “Into gold, lady, into gold or wisps of cloud.”
“You are quite mad and I’ll thank you to go your way or I will most certainly call for assistance.” He smiled at her boyishly and did go his way, and she said nothing of it to Charles when he returned. She was terrified to see his face were she to do so.
Charles died the day after Christmas twenty-three years ago. Rimbaud had died a month earlier. There was a moment she wondered if Charles died because he was heartbroken. Another moment she wondered if he died because of some connection to the obscene alchemy Rimbaud had attempted to talk about that day in Stuttgart. But then came interminable moments in which she more characteristically thought nothing about any of it. Then this moment today, with its palpable shadow of and ungainly posture of an entire continent, the content of which she could hardly fail to reflect on as Bethmann-Hollweg and Poincaré made their noises.
The final, rather extraordinary event was seeing him in Aden where Charles had coffee business to do; extraordinary if for other reason than its apparent inescapability. By then, Rimbaud was thought to be the shrewdest operator in the African coffee trade, especially in light of his pioneering venture in Ethiopia, and Charles did desultorily mention him to Simone soon after their arrival. When Rimbaud visited to pay his respects, it was clear to her that he had intentionally (and rather gallantly) chosen a time when he must have known Charles was away.
“Madame, may I beg a moment of you?” She was startled at Rimbaud’s appearance. He was most tastefully attired and his now-wizened features were by no means unattractive. She said nothing as they stood in the antechamber of the hotel room. The vast fans swirled above, insinuating fixtures of that time and that place. “Briefly, Madame Guelton, I am painfully aware that I insulted you the last time we met. I deeply regret that I did. I have long wanted a moment of your time to apologize. I will understand perfectly if you choose not to accept, but I am quite obliged to offer it, and grateful indeed for the opportunity.”
“I accept your apology, and I am satisfied that you have overcome your demons,” she said, despite her horror of the man or at least of what she knew he had done.
“That may be something of an exaggeration,” he replied. “In any event, our paths might cross again here or elsewhere. Rest assured, I will cause you no further trouble regardless.”
Now she was walking toward the Gare du Nord. She’d likely survive the mounting crisis or, if not, die of natural causes. But her intelligence as she walked was trained on the imminent future, and today her imagination ran wild with desperate thoughts and unspeakable images.