Malmaison

by Amy Lowell

Amy Lowell

I

How the slates of the roof sparkle in the sun,
over there, over there,
beyond the high wall! How quietly the Seine runs in loops
and windings,
over there, over there, sliding through the green countryside! Like
ships
of the line, stately with canvas, the tall clouds pass along the
sky,
over the glittering roof, over the trees, over the looped and curving
river.
A breeze quivers through the linden-trees. Roses bloom
at Malmaison.
Roses! Roses! But the road is dusty. Already
the Citoyenne Beauharnais
wearies of her walk. Her skin is chalked and powdered
with dust,
she smells dust, and behind the wall are roses! Roses
with
smooth open petals, poised above rippling leaves . . . Roses
. . .
They have told her so. The Citoyenne Beauharnais shrugs
her shoulders
and makes a little face. She must mend her pace if she
would be back
in time for dinner. Roses indeed! The guillotine
more likely.
The tiered clouds float over Malmaison, and the slate roof sparkles
in the sun.

II

Gallop! Gallop! The General
brooks no delay. Make way, good people,
and scatter out of his path, you, and your hens, and your dogs,
and your children. The General is returned from Egypt,
and is come
in a `caleche' and four to visit his new property. Throw
open the gates,
you, Porter of Malmaison. Pull off your cap, my man,
this is your master,
the husband of Madame. Faster! Faster! A
jerk and a jingle
and they are arrived, he and she. Madame has red eyes. Fie! It
is for joy
at her husband's return. Learn your place, Porter. A
gentleman here
for two months? Fie! Fie, then! Since
when have you taken to gossiping.
Madame may have a brother, I suppose. That -- all green,
and red,
and glitter, with flesh as dark as ebony -- that is a slave; a bloodthirsty,
stabbing, slashing heathen, come from the hot countries to cure
your tongue
of idle whispering.
A fine afternoon it is, with tall bright clouds sailing over the
trees.
"Bonaparte, mon ami, the trees are golden like my star, the star
I pinned
to your destiny when I married you. The gypsy, you remember
her prophecy!
My dear friend, not here, the servants are watching; send them away,
and that flashing splendour, Roustan. Superb -- Imperial,
but . . .
My dear, your arm is trembling; I faint to feel it touching me! No,
no,
Bonaparte, not that -- spare me that -- did we not bury that last
night!
You hurt me, my friend, you are so hot and strong. Not
long, Dear,
no, thank God, not long."
The looped river runs saffron, for the sun is setting. It
is getting dark.
Dark. Darker. In the moonlight, the slate
roof shines palely milkily white.
The roses have faded at Malmaison, nipped by the
frost. What need for roses?
Smooth, open petals -- her arms. Fragrant, outcurved
petals -- her breasts.
He rises like a sun above her, stooping to touch the petals, press
them wider.
Eagles. Bees. What are they to open roses! A
little shivering breeze
runs through the linden-trees, and the tiered clouds blow across
the sky
like ships of the line, stately with canvas.

III

The gates stand wide at Malmaison, stand wide all
day. The gravel
of the avenue glints under the continual rolling of wheels.
An officer gallops up with his sabre clicking; a mameluke gallops
down
with his charger kicking. `Valets de pied' run about
in ones, and twos,
and groups, like swirled blown leaves. Tramp! Tramp! The
guard is changing,
and the grenadiers off duty lounge out of sight, ranging along the
roads
toward Paris.
The slate roof sparkles in the sun, but it sparkles
milkily, vaguely,
the great glass-houses put out its shining. Glass, stone,
and onyx
now for the sun's mirror. Much has come to pass at Malmaison.
New rocks and fountains, blocks of carven marble, fluted pillars
uprearing
antique temples, vases and urns in unexpected places, bridges of
stone,
bridges of wood, arbours and statues, and a flood of flowers everywhere,
new flowers, rare flowers, parterre after parterre of flowers. Indeed,
the roses bloom at Malmaison. It is youth, youth untrammeled
and advancing,
trundling a country ahead of it as though it were a hoop. Laughter,
and spur janglings in tessellated vestibules. Tripping
of clocked
and embroidered stockings in little low-heeled shoes over smooth
grass-plots.
India muslins spangled with silver patterns slide through trees
--
mingle -- separate -- white day fireflies flashing moon-brilliance
in the shade of foliage.
"The kangaroos! I vow, Captain, I must
see the kangaroos."
"As you please, dear Lady, but I recommend the
shady linden alley
and feeding the cockatoos."
"They say that Madame Bonaparte's breed of sheep
is the best in all France."
"And, oh, have you seen the enchanting little cedar
she planted
when the First Consul sent home the news of the victory of Marengo?"
Picking, choosing, the chattering company flits
to and fro. Over the trees
the great clouds go, tiered, stately, like ships of the line
bright with canvas.
Prisoners'-base, and its swooping, veering, racing,
giggling, bumping.
The First Consul runs plump into M. de Beauharnais and falls.
But he picks himself up smartly, and starts after M. Isabey. Too
late,
M. Le Premier Consul, Mademoiselle Hortense is out after you. Quickly,
my dear Sir! Stir your short legs, she is swift and eager,
and as graceful
as her mother. She is there, that other, playing too,
but lightly, warily,
bearing herself with care, rather floating out upon the air than
running,
never far from goal. She is there, borne up above her
guests
as something indefinably fair, a rose above periwinkles. A
blown rose,
smooth as satin, reflexed, one loosened petal hanging back and down.
A rose that undulates languorously as the breeze takes it,
resting upon its leaves in a faintness of perfume.
There are rumours about the First Consul. Malmaison is
full of women,
and Paris is only two leagues distant. Madame Bonaparte
stands
on the wooden bridge at sunset, and watches a black swan
pushing the pink and silver water in front of him as he swims,
crinkling its smoothness into pleats of changing colour with his
breast.
Madame Bonaparte presses against the parapet of the bridge,
and the crushed roses at her belt melt, petal by petal, into the
pink water.

IV

A vile day, Porter. But keep your wits
about you. The Empress
will soon be here. Queer, without the Emperor! It
is indeed,
but best not consider that. Scratch your head and prick
up your ears.
Divorce is not for you to debate about. She is late? Ah,
well,
the roads are muddy. The rain spears are as sharp as
whetted knives.
They dart down and down, edged and shining. Clop-trop! Clop-trop!
A carriage grows out of the mist. Hist, Porter. You
can keep on your hat.
It is only Her Majesty's dogs and her parrot. Clop-trop!
The Ladies in Waiting, Porter. Clop-trop! It
is Her Majesty. At least,
I suppose it is, but the blinds are drawn.
"In all the years I have served Her Majesty she
never before passed the gate
without giving me a smile!"
You're a droll fellow, to expect the Empress to
put out her head
in the pouring rain and salute you. She has affairs of
her own
to think about.
Clang the gate, no need for further waiting, nobody
else will be coming
to Malmaison to-night.
White under her veil, drained and shaking, the woman crosses the
antechamber.
Empress! Empress! Foolish splendour, perished
to dust. Ashes of roses,
ashes of youth. Empress forsooth!
Over the glass domes of the hot-houses drenches
the rain. Behind her
a clock ticks -- ticks again. The sound knocks upon her
thought
with the echoing shudder of hollow vases. She places
her hands on her ears,
but the minutes pass, knocking. Tears in Malmaison. And
years to come
each knocking by, minute after minute. Years, many years,
and tears,
and cold pouring rain.
"I feel as though I had died, and the only sensation
I have
is that I am no more."
Rain! Heavy, thudding rain!

V

The roses bloom at Malmaison. And not
only roses. Tulips, myrtles,
geraniums, camelias, rhododendrons, dahlias, double hyacinths.
All the year through, under glass, under the sky, flowers bud, expand,
die,
and give way to others, always others. From distant countries
they have
been brought, and taught to live in the cool temperateness of France.
There is the `Bonapartea' from Peru; the `Napoleone Imperiale';
the `Josephinia Imperatrix', a pearl-white flower, purple-shadowed,
the calix pricked out with crimson points. Malmaison
wears its flowers
as a lady wears her gems, flauntingly, assertively. Malmaison
decks herself
to hide the hollow within.
The glass-houses grow and grow, and every year
fling up hotter reflections
to the sailing sun.
The cost runs into millions, but a woman must have
something
to console herself for a broken heart. One can play backgammon
and patience,
and then patience and backgammon, and stake gold napoleons on each
game won.
Sport truly! It is an unruly spirit which could ask better. With
her jewels,
her laces, her shawls; her two hundred and twenty dresses, her fichus,
her veils; her pictures, her busts, her birds. It is
absurd that she
cannot be happy. The Emperor smarts under the thought
of her ingratitude.
What could he do more? And yet she spends, spends as
never before.
It is ridiculous. Can she not enjoy life at a smaller
figure?
Was ever monarch plagued with so extravagant an ex-wife. She
owes
her chocolate-merchant, her candle-merchant, her sweetmeat purveyor;
her grocer, her butcher, her poulterer; her architect, and the shopkeeper
who sells her rouge; her perfumer, her dressmaker, her merchant
of shoes.
She owes for fans, plants, engravings, and chairs. She
owes
masons and carpenters, vintners, lingeres. The lady's
affairs
are in sad confusion.
And why? Why?
Can a river flow when the spring is dry?
Night. The Empress sits alone, and the clock ticks, one
after one.
The clock nicks off the edges of her life. She is chipped
like
an old bit of china; she is frayed like a garment of last year's
wearing.
She is soft, crinkled, like a fading rose. And each minute
flows by
brushing against her, shearing off another and another petal.
The Empress crushes her breasts with her hands and weeps. And
the tall clouds
sail over Malmaison like a procession of stately ships bound for
the moon.
Scarlet, clear-blue, purple epauletted with gold. It
is a parade of soldiers
sweeping up the avenue. Eight horses, eight Imperial
harnesses,
four caparisoned postilions, a carriage with the Emperor's arms
on the panels.
Ho, Porter, pop out your eyes, and no wonder. Where else
under the Heavens
could you see such splendour!
They sit on a stone seat. The little
man in the green coat of a Colonel
of Chasseurs, and the lady, beautiful as a satin seed-pod, and as
pale.
The house has memories. The satin seed-pod holds his
germs of Empire.
We will stay here, under the blue sky and the turreted white clouds.
She draws him; he feels her faded loveliness urge him to replenish
it.
Her soft transparent texture woos his nervous fingering. He
speaks to her
of debts, of resignation; of her children, and his; he promises
that she
shall see the King of Rome; he says some harsh things and some pleasant.
But she is there, close to him, rose toned to amber, white shot
with violet,
pungent to his nostrils as embalmed rose-leaves in a twilit room.
Suddenly the Emperor calls his carriage and rolls
away
across the looping Seine.

VI

Crystal-blue brightness over the glass-houses. Crystal-blue
streaks
and ripples over the lake. A macaw on a gilded perch
screams;
they have forgotten to take out his dinner. The windows
shake. Boom! Boom!
It is the rumbling of Prussian cannon beyond Pecq. Roses
bloom at Malmaison.
Roses! Roses! Swimming above their leaves,
rotting beneath them.
Fallen flowers strew the unraked walks. Fallen flowers
for a fallen Emperor!
The General in charge of him draws back and watches. Snatches
of music --
snarling, sneering music of bagpipes. They say a Scotch
regiment
is besieging Saint-Denis. The Emperor wipes his face,
or is it his eyes.
His tired eyes which see nowhere the grace they long for. Josephine!
Somebody asks him a question, he does not answer, somebody else
does that.
There are voices, but one voice he does not hear, and yet he hears
it
all the time. Josephine! The Emperor puts
up his hand to screen his face.
The white light of a bright cloud spears sharply through the linden-trees.
`Vive l'Empereur!' There are troops passing beyond the
wall,
troops which sing and call. Boom! A pink rose
is jarred off its stem
and falls at the Emperor's feet.
"Very well. I go." Where! Does
it matter? There is no sword to clatter.
Nothing but soft brushing gravel and a gate which shuts with a click.
"Quick, fellow, don't spare your horses."
A whip cracks, wheels turn, why burn one's eyes
following a fleck of dust.

VII

Over the slate roof tall clouds, like ships of
the line, pass along the sky.
The glass-houses glitter splotchily, for many of their lights are
broken.
Roses bloom, fiery cinders quenching under damp weeds. Wreckage
and misery,
and a trailing of petty deeds smearing over old recollections.
The musty rooms are empty and their shutters are
closed, only in the gallery
there is a stuffed black swan, covered with dust. When
you touch it,
the feathers come off and float softly to the ground. Through
a chink
in the shutters, one can see the stately clouds crossing the sky
toward the Roman arches of the Marly Aqueduct.

<< first  < previous  [    ]  next >  last >>