Sport 17: Spring 1996
8 July 1910
My dear friend
I see from your note a further explanation will be necessary. How I regret that you've pressed me to this point! Last night as we walked along the Promenade du Soleil I was afraid you were going to try and kiss me—which is why I turned a way and made empty remarks about the beauty of the setting sun over Cap Martin. Fear of entanglement rendered me witless as a schoolgirl but you must have understood my message—things between us can go no further. If you think it is your threadbare coat (yes, I have noticed) or your Spartan lodgings then you are wrong. I admire the artist's struggle, believe me. There is nothing in your person or manner that is offensive to me—quite the contrary, my dear friend. I withhold myself from you only because I suffer from an affliction—a secret and terrible affliction to which I've never confessed. It strangles every man's love in its infancy and you, I'm afraid, can be no exception.
Let me take you back to a vanished time. December, 1812, the month my great grandmother, Emilie Terese, was married to an elderly Frenchman, one M. Jacques Franc du Ferrier, a professional scribe. The marriage, which began as Napoleon was deserting his Grande Armee at Smogormi, was not a happy one. Strange how the lives of the great and the small coincide—don't you think? Napoleon was defeated by the Russian winter and M. Franc du Ferrier by impotence—a humiliation visited upon him in spite of imbibing a page 103 pinch of ground rhinoceros horn with his wine every night before he went to bed. Had Nature been kinder to them both History might have worn a different face.
When the Congress of Vienna assembled in 1814 M. Franc du Ferrier, who lived in a state of continual anxiety lest his young wife discover what she was missing, was posted to the Austrian capital. From dawn until dusk he penned notes for the Statistical Committee making a complete enumeration of all the territories conquered from Napoleon and his allies. While he calculated the number of Galician Poles in the duchy of Warsaw, seventeen-year-old Emilie paced the small apartment in which she had been installed. Never once, as the Congress wearily inched its way towards the reconstruction of Europe, did she attend one of the many balls, concerts or gala performances that Vienna so lavishly offered. Instead, she remained a virtual prisoner of her jealous husband who allowed her the companionship of one person only—Daniella, a Tuscan maid of all work.
In the spring of 1815 Emilie leaned out her open window one evening and watched a barouche pass by. In it were some smartly dressed Prussian officers on their way to the opera. Then, in the silence left by its departure, she heard a frog croaking. The deep sonorous sound filled her with longing, reminding her of everything she had once hoped for, awakening in her a suppressed eagerness to live the way as water awakens a wilted flower.
In an instant Emilie ran down into the street and knelt on the cobblestones, her skirt spread like a sloping hill. The frog approached her without fear and climbed into her lap. From there she lifted him into her hands and carried him triumphantly inside.
The frog began following Emilie wherever she went. He sat on her lap under a damask napkin while she ate and perched on the edge of her harpsichord while she practised. During her morning toilette he squatted on the dressing-table at home among her silver hair brushes and cut glass perfume bottles. At night, before bedding down in a drawer of silken undergarments, he sat in Emilie's hand and allowed himself to be stroked with scented oil of musk and lavender. Within a week the frog had grown so possessive of his new mistress that he croaked balefully from his hiding place under the page 104 china cabinet whenever M. Franc du Ferrier returned home. Fortunately Emilie's husband was deaf in his left ear and paid no attention to his little rival.
Emilie always insisted it was the frog who made the first move. It happened late one Tuesday night while M. Franc du Ferrier was in his own bed, jaw slack and nightcap askew, dreaming of uncounted Rhinelanders. As Emilie lay in the bathtub, outstretched and languid, the frog circumnavigated its rim looking at her through clouds of steam. Suddenly he dove boldly into the water, and surfaced on his mistress's thigh. Emilie shrieked with laughter. The frog hopped onto her belly, walking across it like a conquistador in a new land. Emilie sighed with pleasure. The frog's feet were as delicate and insistent as fine rain.
Soon after that strange noises began to occur each night. Windows were opened and shut. Furniture was dragged from one corner of the room to another. Bed sheets crackled as if on fire. Once when Daniella put her eye to the keyhole she saw flashes of pink and white like rose petals falling from the ceiling. She became convinced Emilie was entertaining a new-found lover—possibly from the Hungarian delegation—but, being discreet, never uttered a word.
About the time Napoleon escaped from Elba, Daniella noticed that Emilie would eat nothing for hours then devour, in minutes, bread, pickles, anchovies and strudel. One memorable Sunday when M. Franc du Ferrier tried to press a spoonful of Coq au Vin on his wife, she tipped her plate on to the floor and fled to her bedroom, sobbing inconsolably. M. Franc du Ferrier rose from the table without comment, stepped over the shattered crockery, and left the dining room by the opposite door. When Daniella knelt down to tidy up the debris she saw the frog sitting under Emilie's chair, puffed up with malevolent pride.
When the Hundred Days ended and the Second Peace of Paris was signed, Emilie burst her gown under the armpit as she reached for a book. Her buttons popped across her bosom and not a single petticoat would fasten at the waist.
Daniella begged Emilie to take action. She urged her to either tell M. Franc du Ferrier he was going to become a father or else run away with her lover, whoever he might be.page 105
Emilie began to cry in distress. She reached down, cupped the frog in her hand and lifted him to her cheek. Her lips brushed his mottled green body.
‘It is he,’ she said at last.
Daniella screamed and tried to knock the frog out of Emilie's hand. He jumped onto the bed. She seized a velvet cushion and smashed it downwards but the amphibian eluded her. Emilie wept and pleaded for mercy. The two women scratched each other's bare flesh, panting and cursing while the frog bounced between them. Then the windowpanes cracked and a chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling as Emilie forced Daniella from the room and bolted the door against her.
Daniella sank to her knees in defeat and began praying. She remained there until dawn. Then the door finally opened again and Emilie stood, with white skin and glazed eyes, like a woman who has survived a whirlwind. Her clothes hung in tatters from her ripe body.
‘We have said goodbye,’ she said. ‘Forgive me.’ Daniella held out her arms and Emilie swooned into them.
The next morning, as soon as M. Franc du Ferrier had departed for the Statistical Committee, Emilie stripped the apartment of money and jewels. Then she ordered a carriage and fled Vienna hidden under a feather coverlet. She and Daniella travelled, mainly at night, through Northern Italy until they reached the Cote d'Azur where Marie Celeste, my grandmother, was born.
The child was perfect in every way except for the colour of her skin. Green would be too harsh a word to describe it. Think rather of honeydew melon, a peeled cucumber or the palest sliver of jade. Emilie, upon seeing her daughter's misfortune, closed her eyes, developed the fever and died within a week.
The faithful Daniella tried to raise Marie Celeste as best she could. She exposed her, in private, to a strict regime of sunbathing and seawater which reduced her tint to a manageable though sickly hue. When Marie Celeste was sixteen Daniella arranged her to be married to an elderly Englishman who suffered from cataracts. Thus it was that my mother was born and our degenerate line was allowed to continue.page 106
I have a bitter taste in my mouth, dear friend, knowing that as you read my letter your love and desire for me are evaporating. Perhaps you suspect my mental state. Perhaps you think this queer tale is only an excuse for my sudden flight. I can only ask you to believe me when I say I despise my life. If only you knew how I long to tear off my stockings, my gloves, my high-necked blouse, my veil. I long to give myself to you, to end the holding back. The effort of hiding who I really am has quite exhausted me. The pen is sliding in my hand as I write. This letter is imprinted with sweat. Oh God in heaven, how I long to be released from this tormented double life!
Before I began writing this letter I went back to La Brigue. We travelled there on our tour of the Vallée de la Roya—do you remember? It's the village halfway between Tende and Saorge near the chapel of Notre Dame des Fontaine.
As soon as I arrived I took a room at the Hôtel Fleurs des Alps. All afternoon I lay on my bed listening to the church bell ring every half hour, as insistent as an oaf striking a saucepan. I thought I would go mad, knowing I had to write this farewell. At twilight I forced myself to go out. The smell of pine and lavender wafted from the hillsides, floating above the stink of the gutters. I walked through the village with its ancient alleyways, crooked houses and gated courtyards. The stars came out and the hills suddenly resounded with the sound of croaking frogs. Hundreds and thousands of them filled the air with their poisonous music, mocking me.
At Place Comte Lascaris I heard a single frog above the din. He was unmistakably calling out, daring me to find him. I stood quite still. He grew bolder and hopped from one cobblestone to another. I struck like lightening, scooping him into my gloved hand. Making a cage with my fingers I examined him—this hideous ancestor of mine. His eyes were amber with rectangular slits. His skin was paper thin and flecked with black. His throat pulsated, fluttering with each intake of breath. I conjured up your face before me—your cheeks, your lips—your soft brown hair flecked with grey at the temples—as the church bell began tolling nine. Then I squeezed the unfortunate creature between my fingers. His eyes bulged from his body, his skin burst, his wet insides leaked through to my fingers. I uncurled page 107 my fist and scraped him from my gloved hand. Then I let him drop onto the cobblestones and kicked him to one side with the toe of my boot. I felt nothing. Nothing at all.
That night, when I took off my gloves to wash them in the hotel sink, my hands had grown as bright as green apples. No matter how I scrubbed I couldn't rid myself of the stain. You must see now that it's hopeless for us.
There's nothing else to say. I'll leave this letter for you at my hotel. Perhaps you'll go down to the sea to read it—or the cemetery, where you can better marvel at your narrow escape. If you have trouble calming yourself seek out the English physician, Dr Bennet, for a sleeping draught. If medicine isn't to your liking why not take the train to Monte Carlo and play roulette or Trente-et-Quarante? I hear those who win receive thirty-five times the amount staked from the bank. Perhaps you'll be among the lucky ones.
I remain your devoted friend even though we will never know one another as I should have liked.