Do you remember, Antoine, the spring morning when we argued about the Russian soul? We strolled up and down the Champs-Elysees, you and Georges and I, without bothering to notice in the midst of our debate that we must be very late for luncheon, since we were quite alone on the Avenue.
You advised me to read the whole of Dostoyevsky without delay. I answered that I had read The Brothers Karamazov on your advice, and that the one book was enough; I should not open another Russian novel before the following winter; I refused to make myself ill deliberately more than once a year; I had hardly recovered; no, I should not begin The Idiot that spring.
Georges suggested that I was exaggerating the effects of my reading.
“We all suffer from the same ills as Dostoyevsky’s heroes,” you told me. “They are men.”
“But first of all, they are Russians,” I answered with the firmness that you call obstinacy.
“A Russian is just like you and me and our neighbors. The only difference is in your imagination.”
“No, he is different. And to prove it . . . “
We had just reached the corner of the Rue de La Boetie. A man crossed our wake, veered to the right, passed us, and began walking, like ourselves, toward the Etoile.
On the broad Avenue, which at the time was crowded only with its trees, the stranger stared at us and we at the stranger without the least embarrassment on either side; we were like people meeting in a desert.
The man was tall and had a yellow beard. His nose was short; his cheekbones were high and slanting, his eyes crafty. From the breast pocket of his dark blue suit waved a handkerchief of carnation-colored silk. His hat was pulled down over the back of his head; his cigarette smelt like an incense burner. He did not turn, but still he seemed, though I can’t say how, to be observing us through his ears.
“. . . And to prove it? Do you see this man, I ask you. Well, he isn’t like the rest of us . . . because he’s a Russian!”
You answered, “He isn’t a Russian.”
“Yes, he is a Russian. I’m absolutely certain.”
“Are you willing to bet?”
I thought there was nothing to fear. How could we ever learn the stranger’s name? Already he was drawing ahead of us with a brisk step, a military step, the sort of step he would have learned in the Russian army.
I had counted without your love for the truth, which in others might be called indiscretion.
You rushed ahead. I saw you catch up with the stranger and touch your hat; I heard you pronouncing these rash words:
“Excuse me, sir; I have just made a bet with the lady. Would you mind telling me your nationality?”
The man had turned.
In a flash I pictured the scene that would follow, or rather I pictured two scenes: The stranger would be angry; you would exchange insults first, then blows. The stranger would not be angry, but . . . he would say with a horrible smile:
“Why, certainly. But first of all, I should like to meet the lady.”
So as not to see what was going to happen, I clutched my husband’s arm and dragged him toward a florist’s. I fled, but not too swiftly to miss the stranger’s reply:
“Sir, with the greatest of pleasure. I am Spanish.”
I dedicate this romantic novel to you, in memory of a lost wager.
But one story often suggests another. While writing this book in which death plays a larger part than life, I remembered another walk, during which you caused me to reflect on the very subject I was later to choose for my own.
One day as we were strolling and talking under the chestnut-trees of the Avenue Gabriel, we met a funeral procession. All the passers-by took off their hats; you did nothing of the sort and continued the conversation. When I reminded you of your oversight with a touch of irritation, you did not answer, but turning toward a young man who happened to be near us, you swept off your hat with a great gesture and said:
“I salute you, sir, because you are living!”