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Originally published in France as Les biens de ce monde in 1947.
They were together, so they were happy. Even though the watchful family slipped between them, separating them gently but firmly, the young man and woman knew they were near one another; nothing else mattered. It was the beginning of the century – an autumn evening at the seaside, overlooking the English Channel. Pierre and Agnès, their parents and Pierre’s fiancée had all gathered to watch the last firework display of summer. On the fine sand of the dunes, the inhabitants of Wimereux-Plage formed dark little groups, barely visible in the starlight. The moist sea air drifted around them. A profound sense of tranquillity reigned over them, and over the sea, and over the world.
The families were not very friendly to each other, for they belonged to different social classes: the bourgeoisie didn’t mingle with the lower middle classes. Each kept its place and its distance with modesty, steadfastness and dignity. Each built itself a fortress out of spades and folding chairs. Each scrupulously respected the possessions of its neighbours and defended its own courteously but resolutely, just as a well-tempered sword bends but does not break. The mothers would murmur, ‘Don’t touch that, it doesn’t belong to you . . . Excuse me, Madame, this is my son’s seat and this one is mine . . . Watch your toys or someone will take them.’
Heavy storm clouds had been gathering all day, but it hadn’t rained. Agnès thought how wonderful it would be to dip her bare feet in the water. But it wasn’t done to go into the sea, except at midday and amid a crowd of people, thus somehow preserving a young girl’s modesty. She could hear Pierre sighing. He didn’t like the heat. He was wearing a dark jacket with a stiff collar; its pale white glow allowed her to make him out in the darkness. He was lying in the hollow of a sand dune, impatiently waving his arms. ‘Pierre, come now, sit still,’ his mother said, as if he were twelve years old. In fact he was twenty-four, but her tender, authoritarian voice held such power over him that he obeyed her still. Simone, Pierre’s fiancée, sat between him and Agnès; he turned away to avoid looking at the pale folds of flesh round Simone’s waist and her milky-white round arms. This girl looks as if she’s made of milk, and butter, and cream, he mused. It was strange; he had often looked with pleasure at her fresh, plump body, her thick, soft waist and red hair. But, for some time now, the sight of her made him feel nauseous, like a meal that is too heavy, too sweet. Nevertheless, they were engaged. The following week, a grand engagement dinner would make it official, uniting the two families. There was no hope for him and Agnès. So little hope that they hadn’t even confessed their love to each other. It was pointless. Pierre Hardelot came from the Hardelot Paper Mills family of Saint-Elme. Agnès’s family were brewers. Only a foreigner, someone from outside, would have thought a marriage between them possible. The people of Saint-Elme had no such illusions; theyunderstood, with infallible, subtle tact, how the two young people’s different social standing was a barrier. The brewers were from the lower classes and, even worse, they weren’t from the region but from Flanders. The Hardelots were from Saint-Elme. There were plenty more obstacles. Pierre should have felt despair, but in spite of everything he was happy. Agnès was here. They were together.
The fireworks still hadn’t started. The men allowed themselves to relax a little; they stretched out their legs, propped themselves up on their elbows. ‘No one else is lolling about like you,’ Pierre’s mother whispered in his ear. ‘It isn’t done.’ The women sat on the beach as if they were in drawing-room armchairs, backs straight, skirts modestly covering their ankles. If a blade of pale dune grass bent in the wind to tickle their calves, they closed their legs tight, as if ashamed. Their dresses were long and black; their starched linen collars, stiffened with whalebone, restricted their necks, forcing them to turn their heads from side to side with sudden, staccato movements, like hens pecking at worms. When the lighthouse beacon passed you could see their hats, a veritable garden of chiffon and velvet flowers quivering on wire stems. Here and there a stuffed seagull with a pointy beak stood perched on a straw boater. This was the height of fashion, the favourite adornment of the season, though some people found it somewhat daring. There was something unsubtle about that bird, with its little glass eye and extended wings, Pierre’s mother thought, as she looked at Agnès’s mother, comparing her neighbour’s grey-feathered hat to her own with its decoration of daisies. But Agnès’s mother was from Paris. There were niceties she couldn’t sense, couldn’t understand.
Nevertheless, she seemed very anxious to please. ‘Yes,’ she would say, ‘I do agree’, or ‘That’s what I think as well’. But even her humility did not inspire confidence. Everyone knew that, before her marriage, Gabrielle Florent had been forced to work for a living. She herself admitted that she’d given singing lessons. Anything was possible. A singing teacher might have socialised with actresses. In spite of everything, she was accepted in Saint-Elme, for, as far as her present conduct was concerned, there was nothing to be said. Yet even though she was accepted, people remained on the defensive.
It would have been better for Agnès, for Agnès’s future, if there had been some precise accusation regarding her mother’s past, rather than these vague insinuations, people whispering, nodding or sighing as she passed by. ‘Do they have family in Paris? I think this Madame Florent had a bad reputation when she was young. Her daughter will not find a husband so easily. I can’t see her getting married. Can you?’ Monsieur Florent had died three years before. Everyone was surprised that his widow had remained in Saint-Elme. ‘She must have no family left,’ people said, slightly maliciously; in the eyes of Saint-Elme, the absence of numerous relatives was suspicious. ‘She says she’s lost everyone.’ That was no excuse. A good middle-class family should be large, and hardy enough to stand up to death.
‘The fireworks,’ shouted the children, ‘the fireworks are starting.’
A golden swirl burst forth from behind the sand dunes and spun over the waves. Everyone stood up in curiosity and pleasure. The inhabitants of Wimereux-Plage rarely indulged in entertainments; they played Ludo in the Casino and, sometimes, touring theatre companies came from Paris. They didn’t have to pay to see the fireworks. Sound economic principles reigned supreme here.
‘Come over here, Agnès,’ said Pierre. ‘Come and stand in front of me, so you can see better . . .’
But when Agnès went over to him, she found him flanked by his mother and fiancée. He held out his hand to help her climb on to the sand dune and Madame Hardelot immediately called out to her husband, ‘Charles, stand behind Agnès. You’re so tall! She can’t see a thing, can you, darling?’
And so, protected on three sides, Pierre was as defended as a fortress. He pushed the women away rather briskly. ‘It’s too hot. I prefer lying in the sand.’
Agnès didn’t dare move. She lowered her head and choked back the tears.
During the winter the Hardelots and Florents rarely saw each other, even though they were neighbours. The people of Saint-Elme had a remarkable talent for ignoring whatever they didn’t wish to know. How well they knew when to become deaf and blind. How tactfully they side-stepped anything they found unpleasant! Families could live next door to one another for twenty years and never even glance at each other. But here, at Wimereux, it was different. In their youth, Agnès’s father and Charles Hardelot had each bought property on the seafront; their chalets were adjoining. It was unfortunate, but as this was a good location, it took precedence over any other factor. They couldn’t very well ignore each other. And besides, summer was of no consequence, the Hardelots thought; it was as if their habits, their prejudices, their preconceptions were all part of their environment, their habitat. Once away from home, they became more tolerant, just as certain insects lose their sting once outside the hive. But summer was nearly over. ‘And we’ll never see each other again,’ thought Agnès. ‘He’ll get married and as for me . . . Anyway, does he even love me? He’s never told me he does . . . He knows he can’t marry me, so it wouldn’t be right,’ she thought. ‘But if he did love me, I’d follow him to the ends of the earth.’
‘Look how beautiful it is,’ said Madame Florent, leaning towards her daughter.
‘Oh, yes, beautiful,’ replied Agnès, her voice trembling, seeing nothing.
A spray of shooting stars rose towards the sky, then fell back down again, lighting up the crowd; a long whistle sounded as it descended, like a jet of steam. Everyone looked up: Pierre, thin and suntanned, with his wide forehead, small mouth and light-brown moustache; Madame Hardelot, fat, soft and pale; Simone, with her heavy chin. Agnès automatically imitated the movements of the others; she had a young, thin face, pale skin and dark hair.
Flames, cornucopias, fiery wheels filled the skies. Then they went out. The night seemed even darker; the air smelled of smoke. Only one little green shooting star, as lost as an orphan, hovered for a moment in the sky before plunging at great speed towards the sand dunes. ‘Oh!’ the crowd sighed in disappointment, but then other fireworks lit up the east (a cockerel, a fountain, white at first, then tinged with silver, then with red, white and blue) and the crowd showed its joy by crying out a satisfied ‘Ah-ah-ah . . .’ while the wails of a child rose from the darkness.
The fountain exploded and fell silent. The last rockets disappeared into the sea. The fireworks were over. The Florents and the Hardelots set off for home. Charles Hardelot led the way. His spectacles, set low on his nose, glistened in the beam from the lighthouse. He held his shoes and socks in his hands; he had rolled his trouser legs above his knees. It was difficult to walk in the dunes unless you were barefoot; the hills and valleys of sand were constantly shifting, then re-forming, setting off fine white rivers that crunched inside stockings and ankle boots. It was a constant trial to these ladies; they walked with difficulty, grimacing, leaning against each other. Naturally, the idea of taking off their shoes would never have occurred to them, any more than the idea of removing their corsets. The young women walked alongside their mothers, in silence. Pierre was gone.
‘He said he was going over to the Casino before coming home,’ said Madame Hardelot disapprovingly. Then she whispered in her husband’s ear, ‘Don’t go to bed before he gets back so you know what time he comes in . . .’
‘Do you want to know what I think?’ said Charles, in the same tone of voice. ‘I’ll feel better when we’re back in Saint-Elme and Pierre is married. I dislike these excessive seaside distractions,’ he added, rubbing his thin dry legs; the sand fell from his tight, muscular calves and long, delicate ankles. He put his shoes back on, shaking his head with a worried expression.
A few street lamps were lit along the road, illuminating the houses set among the sand dunes and pine trees. They had names like ‘My Respite’, ‘My Delight’, ‘The Swiss Chalet’ or ‘The Waves’. They were all alike, with their high pointed roofs and wooden balconies, their narrow windows decorated with pebbles and seashells. The Hardelots and the Florents had the last two houses. Beyond them, the road turned into a sandy slope. Sand covered the front steps and the garden paths.
Wimereux was already getting ready for a peaceful night. Here and there, a light flickered behind the shutters, then went out. Each household barricaded itself in to keep out the nocturnal wind, the roaring sea. There was no singing; no shouting: the people of Wimereux were ‘respectable’. Further down the coast, a luxury hotel had been built, so they’d heard; its guests were gentlemen who dressed for dinner every evening, and ladies who went riding every day. Down there, they danced and gambled until dawn. But no one envied those outsiders. That sort of thing went on far away, or so it seemed, on another planet, one that deserved neither interest nor consideration of any sort. As they went inside, the families exchanged long, ceremonious goodbyes. Sleepy children were dragged along by the hand. In single file, they climbed the pale wooden steps that smelled of sap and honey. Simone went into her room; it was between Pierre’s grandfather’s room and his parents’ bedroom. Pierre slept on a different floor, as far away from his fiancée as possible, so as not to arouse the slightest suspicion about the fact that a young man and young woman were living under the same roof. Doors were bolted; windows locked; they checked under the beds. In their peaceful universe, these people saw danger everywhere, pitfalls of every kind.
In her room, Agnès lifted a corner of the curtain, looking down the road for Pierre. She was very careful not to be seen. What a scandal it would be if anyone suspected she wasn’t asleep, that she was waiting...for whom? Someone else’s fiancé. He wasn’t there. A soft but thick fog rose from the sea. It was early September; you could smell autumn now. The air had lost its warmth, become damp and bitter. She waited. It was nearly midnight. One by one, the street lamps went out. At midnight, all of Wimereux was asleep. Finally, finally, she heard the long creak of the little wooden door, pushed open by Pierre. He was home. He wasn’t coming home to her, but to Simone; yet in spite of everything he was home. She stood beside the window for a moment longer, gently removing the pins that held up her long hair. The beach, the sea, were invisible, covered in mist. All that could be heard was a very faint murmur wafting up from the waves, like the sound of someone sighing.