For ten years, Pierre Vaumeil passed for mad. Previously, he had been a savant, but the death of a beloved women had, everyone in the little town maintained, destroyed his mind.
Often we walked in the country. At times he spoke in a loud voice.
Someone said to him:
“You speak alone, M. Vaumeil?”
“I am never alone.”
And sometimes he told a story, perhaps symbolic, of which he listeners understood nothing.
So his reputation as a madman was solidly established.
The other day, he wandered according to his custom.
A dozen of the curious followed or surrounded him. He did not seem to notice their presence.
“All the thoughts that come to me and all the joys to which I open my heart still bear the name and face of the beloved.”
He sat on the edge of a ditch and cried out:
“Oh, beloved, lost for so long to my naïve eyes, which only see the outside.”
Then, strangely, he questioned himself:
“Do you know, Pierre, if Pierre is anything but the visible form of the memory of Alice?…”
And he fell silent, preoccupied with the problem.
Someone said to him:
“You seem happy, M. Vaumeil?”
“I love,” he responded, “and I am loved.”
And then he began to tell a tale, with a disturbing poetry:
* * *
“We commonly say that Circe turned men into beasts. That is inaccurate. She laid bare the beasts in human form, she dispelled the lies. She gave the stupid mind or base heart the material form which constituted a confession.
One day, storms cast on the island of the sorceress numerous beings who seemed human. She presented them with the brew which forces the face to become, honestly, a muzzle or snout. And she increased her herds of asses and swine.
But one man and one woman remained unchanged. They went, holding hands, bringing their lips together frequently, so that they appeared unable to free themselves. They ate of the same fruits and drank at the same springs.
Circe presented them with the most vigorous of her potions, a potion so powerful that they could have forced the gods themselves to confess, transforming Apollo into a peacock, Mercury into a fox or Mars into a Tiger.
Unknowing, they took the drink offered and drank the large cup together. Two doves’ beaks plunged, after the rain, in the same hollow in the rock.
When the cup was empty, they dropped it carelessly on the grass and they departed.
They did not depart in the debased forms of animals. They always walked straight and slender, looking each other in the eyes. They stopped sometimes, lips stuck to lips. They walked and they stopped, always as man, always as woman.
Circe, furious and sly, followed them. She asked herself:
“What can have destroyed the formidable power of the philter?”
The two friends did not know that anyone was behind them and they were unaware of the question that tore up the sorceress with rage. But Circe soon mourned her irremediable powerlessness. For a vague emotion had made the lovers speak.
Now the man said to the woman:
“I have a reason to be a man, life of my life, since you are a woman.”
The woman said to the man:
“Since you are a man, heart of my heart, I must be a woman.
* * *
A long silence marked the end of his account.
Embarrassment weighed on the auditors who perhaps only understood half of it, but the majority of whom sensed something great and noble standing in the midst of them.
Pierre Vaumeil suddenly gave a great laugh, as if in triumph. And he declared:
“Death is not more powerful than Circe.”
The then stupidest of those who were there had a malicious look, touched his forehead with a fingertip.
And he said, with a disdainful pity:
“The poor man!… He has been like that since the death of his wife… as long as he has lived alone.”
Pierre heard the last words.
His eyes shone like those fires that the ancients lit on hilltops to announce a victory.
“Are you really sure,” he asked, “that we are alone when we love, or that we are dead when we are loved?…”
No one responded. And, as he rose to continue on his way, no one dared to follow him.
The Smart Set, October 1917, 129-130.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]