Post Card - Pierrefonds - Le Féodal et le Moderne

When she arrived, La Circassia went straight to her room. While the short and tall MacLeishes stood outside, away from her door, speaking together quietly, she went from place to place, inspecting everything. Her first round was the most efficient, the quickest. From the doorway she walked along one wall – the blank one – to the curtain across the space, the one separating her day space from the bed. She spread that curtain and passed through to the next, the curtain separating the bath from the sleeping space. In turn, she spread that curtain, and passed through to her bath. Then she spun on the spot, frowned, and pushed each curtain out of the way, back to the wall, exposing the entire room. In that moment she stripped it bare. Standing in the furthest corner, she surveyed the naked space. It was a single colour, shades of pale grey and white, and large for one person, about five meters wide and five meters high at its highest, and almost nine meters from the window to the back wall. After taking it all in for a moment, she continued her inspection. She glanced into the cabinet de toilette, walked past sink and shower bathtub, counted the hooks on the wall, stopped at the foot of the bed, inspected the tables and shelves briefly before coming to the doorway, and beckoning to the tall MacLeish. He approached her. She barely shrugged. He understood, and gestured politely to where I waited. She turned to me, smiled radiantly, and made the faintest of bows, acknowledging my efforts. I returned the bow, and smiled. She stepped back into the room and began her inspection in greater depth.

First, she took off her hat, an extravagant, jarring, cheerful summer straw with a blood-red ribbon. Walking the length of the room, she placed it carefully on a hook, with her light shawl over the next. She stepped to the sink, turned on both taps, and held her hands in the flow, letting the water splash, leaving the spray to play carelessly over her linen skirt. After a minute or more, apparently satisfied, she stopped the taps and ran her hands back through her hair to dry them. I would, in the months and years to come, see her repeat that cleansing routine several times a day, unselfconsciously, like an animal, almost whenever she was in the presence of running water. Refreshed, she resumed her inspection. She did that, for the most part, by hand, touching everything, testing the surfaces, finding the flaws, rubbing them tentatively, seeing if this or that was essential or only incidental to the thing – a chair, a table, a bed frame, a counterpane. In the following days, she would ask for fine sand and pumice, polishes and cloths, soaps, waxes – anything to bring these objects into her orbit, and domesticate them. Her hands were distinctive, but not beautiful. The fingers were long and strong and well trained, but slightly spatulate, so it seemed she had extra nerve-endings at the tips. The palms were wide and flat, but not deep from wrist to knuckle. When she closed her hands the fingertips seemed to reach all the way to the inside of the wrist. These hands were competent and restless. Like familiars, they were exploring her perimeter. In the following months, even when she was otherwise at rest, I would watch her hands, almost independent of her, test the world around her. They were firm, aggressive, discrete, and unrestrained, like cats. They touched everything. They took over whatever they confronted and made those things part of her. And if the hands tested everything, the eyes watched nothing. Except when she washed, she wore the dark spectacles. Except occasionally (when she bowed to me, for one) her gaze was always abstract, indirect, in the middle distance. It seemed she saw everything but looked nowhere in particular. Between the incurious spectacles and the voracious hands, I might have thought she was blind. During her second circuit around the room, the shorter MacLeish interrupted at the doorway, carrying two leather valises, a black leather cube of suitcase, and several cloth- and paper-bound portfolios. She pointed to the bed for the valises, the table by the bed for the black leather case, and the small desk for the portfolios.

She opened the black case first: a phonograph, with a gleaming nickel arm and a green felt turntable. Drawing her left hand delicately along the top of the phonograph arm, she examining it for imperfections, hesitated, and closed up the case again. Next, she opened the smaller valise, and drew out a red and black pasteboard box and a wooden chessboard. She set the board on the table in the window and carefully unpacked the chess pieces, a set of brown and ebonized cubes and cylinders and balls, barely a chess set at all. She placed the pieces with care, wiping each with a scrap of gray felt before putting it in place on the board. When everything was laid out, she stood back to study it for a moment, before making the smallest of adjustments.

Then, with a muted gesture she asked everyone to go, and stood stock-still until we did.



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