I looked at Clara. Divinely calm and pretty, naked in a transparent tunic of yellow silk, she was languidly stretched out on a tiger skin. Her head lay among the cushions, and with her hands, loaded with rings, she played with a long wisp of her flowing hair. A Laos dog with red hair slept beside her, its muzzle resting on her thigh and a paw upon her breast.
“What?” Clara went on, “didn’t you know? Why that’s funny!” All smiles, and stretching like a supple animal, she explained to me:
“It was horrible, my dear! Annie died…died of that frightful scourge called elephantiasis…for everything here is frightful…love…disease…and the flowers! Never have I wept so much, I assure you. I loved her so much–so much! And she was so beautiful!”
She added, with a long and charming sigh:
“Never again will we know the bitter taste of her kisses! It’s a great misfortune!”
“Then it’s really true!” I stammered. “But how did it happen?”
“I don’t know. There are so many mysteries here, so many things that can’t be understood. Both of us often used to go out on the river in the evening. I must tell you that there was a bayadère from Benares, in a flower-boat…a bewitching creature, my dear, whom the priests had taught certain cursed rites of the ancient Brahman cults. Perhaps it was that…or something else. One night when we were returning from the river, Annie complained of violent pains in the head and loins, and the next day her body was all covered with little purple spots. Her skin, rosier and finer than the althaea flower, was hardening–thickening, swelling, and became an ashy grey. Great tumors and monstrous tubercles arose. It was something frightful…”
She twined the golden lock of her hair about her fingers. In his sleep the dog’s paw had slipped along with her silk tunic, entirely uncovering the globe of her breast, whose nipple arose, pink as a young flower.
“Yes, I still wonder sometimes whether or not I’m dreaming,” she said.
“Clara…Clara!” I implored, aghast with horror, “don’t tell me any more. I’d like the image of our divine Annie to remain intact in my memory. What can I do now to dispel this nightmare? Ah, Clara! don’t say any more; or talk to me about Annie when she was beautiful…when she was too beautiful!”
Clara did not listen to me, but continued:
“Annie isolated herself…shut herself up in her house, alone with a Chinese housekeeper who took care of her. She had sent all her women away, and no longer wanted to see anyone…not even me. She summoned the cleverest practitioners of England. In vain, you may be sure. The most celebrated sorcerers of Tibet–those who know the magic words and resuscitate the dead–declared themselves powerless. You never recover from that disease; but you never die of it. It’s frightful! Then she killed herself. A few drops of poison, and that was the end of the most beautiful of women.”
Terror sealed my lips. I looked at Clara, unable to utter a single word. “I learned from that Chinese woman,” Clara continued, “a really curious detail, which fascinates me. You know how much Annie loved pearls. She owned some incomparable specimens…the most marvelous, I believe, that ever existed. You also remember the almost physical joy, the carnal ecstasy, with which she adorned herself with them. Well, when she was sick that passion became a mania with her…a fury, like love! All day long she loved to touch them, caress them and kiss them; she made cushions of them, necklaces, capes, cloaks. Then this extraordinary thing happened; the pearls died on her skin: first they tarnished, little by little…little by little they grew dim, and no light was reflected in their luster any more and, in a few days, tainted by the disease, they changed into tiny balls of ash. They were dead, dead like people, my darling. Did you know that pearls had souls? I think it’s fascinating and delicious. And since then, I think of it every day.”