Now, all at once, with his mind at ease, the professor’s stomach began to feel great pangs of hunger. And suddenly he remembered other ravenous flashes, especially those colossal appetites that man falls prey to after nights of well-requited love. Those distant passions were nothing but vague sensations now, recalled without regret. But the meals that had followed in their wake — improvised meals for two, consumed on this very spot — still stood out in his memory, sharp and clear. Great, flat slices of country bread, dark-smoked ham from up the mountain, dried goat cheese from the village, olives from the terraced groves, apricots from the garden, steeped in sunlight, and that wine from the rocky slopes, just a little too tart. It was all still there in the house, all right within reach: the bread, in the cupboard with the cross carved into its lid; the olives, in a stoneware pot; the ham, hanging from the beams in the kitchen; the wine and cheese, outside, under the stairs, like rows of books lined up on dimly lit shelves … In no time at all it was set out, spread over the massive table. For a moment the cork in the bottle held fast. When it finally let go, with a sharp little pop, the familiar sound filled the room with a kind of sensual joy. And it occurred to the old professor that once again, tonight, he was celebrating an act of love.
He poured himself some wine, one hearty glass for his thirst, then one for his pleasure, smacking his lips with a touch of ostentation at the obvious excess. He cut up the ham into fine, thin slices, arranged them neatly on a pewter plate, put out a few olives, laid the cheese on a bed of grape leaves and the fruit on a large, flat basket. Then he sat down before his supper and smiled a contented smile. He was in love. And like any successful suitor, he found himself face to face now with the one he loved, alone. Yet tonight that one was no woman, no living creature at all, but a myriad kindred images formed into a kind of projection of his own inner being. Like that silver fork, for example, with the well-worn prongs, and some maternal ancestor’s initials, now rubbed almost smooth. A curious object, really, when you think that the Western World invented it for propriety’s sake, though a third of the human race still grubs up its food with its fingers. And the crystal, always set out in a row of four, so utterly useless. Well, why not? Why do without glasses, like boors? Why stop setting them out, simply because the Brazilian backwood was dying of thirst, or because India was gulping down typhus with every swallow of muck from its dried-up wells? Let the cuckolds come pound at the door with their threats of revenge. There’s no sharing in love. The rest of the world can go hang. They don’t even exist. So what if those thousands were all on the march, cuckolded out of the pleasures of life? All the better! … And so, the professor set out the four glasses, lined them up in a row. Then he moved the lamp a little to give more light, and they sparkled like stars. Further over, a rustic chest, huge and immovable. Three centuries, father to son, as the young man said, and so sure of it all. And in that chest such an endless store of tablecloths and napkins, of pillow slips and sheets, of dustcloths and fine linen, product of another age, linen that would last forever, in great thick piles, so tightly packed on the outside alone that he never had to use the other household treasures hidden behind them, all lavender-scented, that his mother, or hers, had stacked away so very long ago, never parting with a stitch for their poor until it was worn out and decently patched, but with lots of good use in it yet, convinced — dear, prudent souls that they were — that unbridled charity is, after all, a sin against oneself. Then, after a while, there were too many poor. Altogether too many. Folk you didn’t even know. Not even from here. Just nameless people. Swarming all over. And so terribly clever! Spreading through cities, and houses, and homes. Worming their way by the thousands, in thousands of foolproof ways. Through the slits in your mailboxes, begging for help, with their frightful pictures bursting from envelopes day after day, claiming their due in the name of some organization or other. Slithering in. Through newspapers, radio, churches, through this faction or that, until they were all around you, wherever you looked. Whole countries full, bristling with poignant appeals, pleas that seemed more like threats, and not begging now for linen, but for checks to their account. And in time it got worse. Soon you saw them on television, hordes of them, churning up, dying by the thousands, and nameless butchery became a feature, a continuous show, with its masters of ceremonies and its full-time hucksters. The poor had overrun the earth. Self-reproach was the order of the day; happiness, a sign of decadence. Any pleasure? Beneath discussion. Even in Monsieur Calgues’s own village, if you did try to give some good linen away, they would just think you were being condescending. No, charity couldn’t allay your guilt. It could only make you feel meaner and more ashamed. And so, on that day he remembered so well, the professor had shut up his cupboards and chests, his cellar and larder, closed them once and for all to the outside world. The very same day that the last pope had sold out the Vatican. Treasures, library, paintings, frescoes, tiara, furniture, statues — yes, the pontiff had sold it all, as Christendom cheered, and the most high-strung among them, caught up in the contagion, had wondered if they shouldn’t go do likewise, and turn into paupers as well. Useless heroics in the eternal scheme of things. He had thrown it all into a bottomless pit: it didn’t take care of so much as the rural budget of Pakistan for a single year! Morally, he had only proved how rich he really was, like some maharaja dispossessed by official decree. The Third World was quick to throw it up to him, and in no time at all he had fallen from grace. From that moment on, His Holiness had rattled around in a shabby, deserted palace, stripped to the walls by his own design. And he died, at length, in his empty chambers, in a plain iron bed, between a kitchen table and three wicker chairs, like any simple priest from the outskirts of town. Too bad, no crucifixion on demand before an assembled throng. The new pope had been elected at about the time Monsieur Calgues retired. One man, wistfully taking his
place on the Vatican’s throne of straw. The other one, back in his village to stay, with only one thought: to enjoy to the fullest his earthly possessions, here in the setting that suited him best … So thank God for the tender ham, and the fragrant bread, and the lightly chilled wine! And let’s drink to the bygone world, and to those who can still feel at home in it all!
While the old man sat there, eating and drinking, savoring swallow after swallow, he set his eyes wandering over the spacious room. A time-consuming task, since his glance stopped to linger on everything it touched, and since every confrontation was a new act of love. Now and then his eyes would fill with tears, but they were tears of joy. Each object in this house proclaimed the dignity of those who had lived here — their discretion, their propriety, their reserve, their taste for those solid traditions that one generation can pass on to the next, so long as it still takes pride in itself. And the old man’s soul was in everything, too. In the fine old bindings, the rustic benches, the Virgin carved in wood, the big cane chairs, the hexagonal tiles, the beams in the ceiling, the ivory crucifix with its sprig of dried boxwood, and a hundred other things as well … It’s man’s things that really define him, far more than the play of ideas; which is why the Western World had come to lose its self-respect, and why it was clogging the highways at that very moment, fleeing north in droves, no doubt vaguely aware that it was already doomed, done in by its over-secretion, as it were, of ugly monstrosities no longer worth defending.