Donna Alba

First of all I have to recall that moment of my life which was the origin of the incidents that I will evoke in these confessions. It was the instant – so dramatic to me – when I first saw Alba. But right in that moment, which twisted so many years that were to come in my life, I didn't know that the sober and proud woman, tall and stunningly beautiful, who passed by me was called Alba, nor did I know that she had the aristocratic surname that I later found out she had. I had no idea either that our paths in life would cross they way they did. It was enough for me that, among all the youngsters gathered in front of the heavy lattice door with dark windows of the high school – where we had to take the graduation exam, the capacity, as we called it – among all of them, of which I was a part, a dreadful silence was suddenly felt. We all gathered too early and the high school entrance, as well as the entrance to the courtyard, was closed. Handsome boys, elegantly dressed, most of them in their first civilian suit, were sitting on the window sills that jutted out – fortress-like windows belonging to the basement of the huge building – and some were standing, in noisy groups, all very careful about the crease of the trousers and elated by the colors of the civilian clothes, most of them – crushing majority – dark-blue. Among the stationary groups of boys the mobile groups of girls, each of five or six, with hands crossed behind the other's back, were walking along the narrow and noisy camp, all the time casting their joyful and languid glances: blue, greenish, dark-rusty or black flowers, as the shiver from the depth of the dreadful Gehenna. The boys would pick them up dearly, and others, the smallest, didn't even look at these schoolgirls, but stared with their shy bulky eyes at the elegant women that passed by or at the feminine apparitions in the fugitive cars. There were also distorted exemplars in this exuberance and indifference on the very steps of the dusty entrance staircase. They were dressed in worn-out clothes of errand boys or in old shabby uniforms. They didn't want to waste even the last minutes, for they browsed attentively through books and notebooks; from time to time, they whispered to the others, asking about some unknown member of the examination board, whereas in the opposite side, in the group of indifferent boys, one could hear expressions of admiration such as: "The tall and thin one? Well, he speaks Latin, you know!" or: "Who, the cheeky fat one who always chatters? He has a letter from Minister Duca in his pocket, dear!" And suddenly, there was that silence spreading from group to group as a rapidly catching disease: Alba was passing by. She walked proudly, looking nowhere, among the waves of youngsters that split in two like the waves of the Red Sea in front of Moses' step. The girls themselves gathered their blue, chestnut and dark flowers, and as a sign of natural homage cast them onto her, until she turned round the corner: it wasn't envy that one could see in the eyes of most of them, but the pride and trust in their own future, from which only two or three exams separated them. But the wonderful passer-by didn't look for a single moment at any of them; only I succeeded to turn her ambiguously colored yet terribly dark eyes on me and even to bereave a smile – what am I saying? – a real fragment of laughter from the flower of her lips. But how did it happen? My god, what a sinister success! I had seen her from far away, but when she came right in front of me for the first time in my life my hand started shaking as if stricken by a nervous shudder and suddenly the big Bailly dictionaries of over 2000 pages in eight volumes and the one of over 1500 by Quicherat began to quiver under my arm; when she was near me, hardly had I stretched my other arm to stop them that Bailly fell on the pavement with a terrible thump and Quicherat followed it together with the rest of the books. She looked at me with surprise and her seriousness gave way to several bursts of laughter that she, however, tried to control. Had she become more self-assured by walking ahead? For, it was obvious that by the fire in my cheeks, by my ears, which felt like two flames, she realized the cause of my embarrassing clumsiness. A long time after the incident, the laughter of boys and girls resounded in my ears; the latter insistently watched me from under their half closed eyelashes, but when they saw that I avoided their glances they couldn't help laughing, each hiding her head behind the other's shoulder. […]Terrible remorse torments me. The more guilty and unworthy of her I feel –and this might have originated in that nightly escapade – as I see that the glances she casts on me are more and more steel-cold. Her answer to my greeting is somehow deferent, and she seems to grant me the significance, insignificant to her, that I have in her husband's office, but in such a distant and impersonal way that I am simply baffled. Hadn't I noticed that she once greeted Radu in the same absent and distant way that even this nice boy, completely dedicated to the study, made a grimace of perplexity, I could have believed that I had been noticed by Mrs. Smaranda when I turned round the garden the night of the pursuit. But it might have been better to be troubled by that incertitude rather than to relate her new disposition towards "us", her inmates, to that unwonted meeting whose continuation I cannot retell in any way. For, I have to confess that during the maestro's absence I spend most of the time in front of the big building in which the mysterious prince disappeared. I survey all the entrances and exits; all the cars that stop here make me startle violently. But nothing, no trace, no sign from the torturing mystery that lures me there. And the awful pangs of uncertain jealousy thrust mercilessly in my consciousness. I dreadfully hate that wrinkled and distinguished face that I followed and regret not having climbed the secret staircase, which made her invisible. Might anyone have stopped me? How many people don't live in this huge edifice especially in those attics with the glass panes hidden under the eaves? Do they know each other, all these people who found shelter under the same immense roof? I will never forgive myself for this mistake, better said for this lack of courage. Then, I feel a grudge on Mrs. Alba for this taste of hers that I find rather dubious. In what aspects can eventually Mr. Georges Radu Şerban be considered inferior to this elderly rotten night owl? What incredible adventures, what amazing bravery could this bizarre fellow have experienced so as to make such a refined woman give up a man in whom the greatness of the past and of the entire history is reflected as the infinite of the sky in a drop of water? Could vices and irresistible perversities dominate her, Mrs. Alba, like, for instance, her cousin ready for any sacrifice for a brown-haired woman? This would explain the coldness between her and her husband that Raoul mentioned! Or perhaps it is the useless fame of a name that symbolizes a bit more than that of the maestro in the distorted hierarchy of past values negotiated like a brand name by worthless epigones – it is this that produces onto her such a profound, unnatural, hysterical and hence ridiculous impression. This woman, whose appearance makes you judge her completely different, would appear to have a week intellect in this case, and hence, wouldn't this anxiety that torments me be just a ridiculous bluff, a sinister farce that I play on myself so ardently? How could my mere endeavors and my brave stratagem have the result I am waiting for in my lonely nights from her rosy hands, when in the poor reckless mind of the cherished lady even the true descendent of a noble family, worthy of his name, doesn't really matter? What could I represent for her that would give me an advantage over a nobody, without having any merit than the simple name that others have made, I who want precisely to overthrow all these stupid prejudices with the big endeavor and the raw energy that I am laying to her beauty and happiness? But it was enough for me to see Mrs. Alba again one morning, her cheeks and her low-necked dress, with the freshness of that beginning of winter morning, to cast away all those poisonous thoughts resulting from sleepless nights and to make me cling desperately to my dream with an almost superhuman firmness. In these mornings, at the break of dawn, I discovered something that has more importance to me than the Locarno truce, the taking of Rome by assault or crossing the ocean by plane. Mrs. Alba has a soft chestnut hair, not black as I thought at the beginning. This is one more joy to me and a ray of sunshine in my night of torturing doubts; not because I would like Mrs. Alba more if she were light brown than dark-brown – for she is to me a real wonder, irrespective of her divine attributes, taken separately. My reason was that by discovering a sure detail from the truth of her being – for me still irresistible as the notion of God to a philosopher – I feel closer to her, I feel her closer to me and more willing to reveal some other harmonious details of her perfect structure. […]Voicuţa has a special weakness for the five o'clock dancings. She likes us to take refuge there especially on the smoldering rainy days. And thus, I find myself among the unknown couples swinging with her for a couple of hours, I – tall and broad-shouldered, she – small, with her hands surrounding my waist, imitating the restless fret around us on the persistent squeaks and hiccups of a bizarre band. This music reminds me of the fairs at Zăreni when the clarinet kept wailing and the bagpipe kept deflating in an unaesthetic and pathetic noise, encouraging the dizzy peasants to refill their glasses of brandy and to howl as if reiterating the cave-man's instincts. In these suffocating rooms, I do not meet anymore those red and stupefied eyes that I vaguely recall now; but obviously, many of them have absent looks, thrilled by low spirited endless and tired touches. This monotony is killing me: couples of opposite sex keep rejecting themselves anxiously; and the syncopated moves that I make with my belly and my rear give me a sense of personal shame and if everybody stopped moving and left me alone, engaged in my choreographic activity, I would most certainly howl and run like mad as if caught on the hop. But here, hidden by the unanimous agreement I toss and twist at wish and the warmth of Voicuţa's body encourage and urge me to exaggerate. This aphrodisiac exercise entraps and makes her languid; she looks up in my eyes ecstatically. Her dry lips start trembling and I can hear her humming gutturally, while her little round hands go up my spine in a thrilling embrace. Then, she literally clutches at my neck and we start spinning through the general dizziness lost in a deep embrace. […]It was a picture whose image was considerably effaced by the wrinkled transparent celluloid wrapping; but it was her indeed, Alba, her bust, no hat, with surprisingly tousled hair that gave a rebellious tinge to the whole image. It was framed in a wooden pyrogravure with the glass unsuitable for the cardboard size, so that the frame obstructed the inscription below. One could only see: "To my dear…" and from the line below, as the handwriting went upwards, there was an isolated "faithful". So, her dear faithful Preda Buzescu… This confession, written and undoubtedly signed by her hand that I imagined as being long and delicate –and I hadn't yet seen it closely – in this shabby room with an iron bed, with stale warehouse-smells coming from the shelf of the nightstand, with the dark green of the stained table cloth, with the incomplete set of ornaments, with the spirit lamp always present on the glass shelf – this confession deeply saddened my heart and blurred my clear judgement. However, I noticed the features of the face that I could finally contemplate to my heart's desire: they showed a mild and majestic firmness and the eyes as well as the allure cast upon the viewer an unfathomable charm, her clear glance – a joyful and at the same time sad mystery – and everything seemed again so noble and distant that I instantly understood the admiration and awe that Aurica and madam (who was formulating it in Italian verses) had for this complex yet compact expression of Mrs. Alba, the faithful lover of an outcast. Saddened to death, I left this happy bastard's place and walked along the curved corridor of the attic as if crossing a sinister vault-corridor. But when I stepped into the daylight I regained my optimism. If Mrs. Alba can be faithful to such a fellow who can only be seen in certain combinations of lights and shadows – to emphasize this single similarity with a famous poet (his only merit except that, just as passive, of being born!) – if she can do that, then the real powerful fighter who recovers her ancient fortune in a terrible struggle might as well have a chance of triumphantly entering her life. Indeed, everything around me, on the wide boulevard and on this beautiful May day is extremely green and bright. Her photo might have saddened me, her picture in a golden frame, in a completely golden room. There, the crazy and obsessive idea of revising the Ypsilants' file would have crossed my mind, in spite of my humble name, just as the crazy idea of setting Bucharest on fire might cross somebody's mind. But things being as they are, I can only laugh at what is going on. Mrs. Alba can merely feel pity for her old friend. It is a great virtue of Mrs. Alba her faithfulness to a man of fifty, in a love relation that apparently started in her early twenties, to a poetic figure of thirty eight-thirty nine highly famous for his adventures. This is all I needed to know: Mrs. Alba liked the adventurous type.How simple and mignon everything is! But somebody must show her what great and noble adventure means! The adventure alone has and will always inscribe the real noblesse onto the soul. The inertness and the repose – this is a very common sentence – can be changed by anybody into perpetual mobility by a mere impetus: but not anybody can succeed in giving life to a lifeless state of affairs! At the Court, where we have a difficult appeal, Mr. Georges Radu Şerban waits for his turn as usual, in an oak pew matching his beard, which is spread on the white shirtfront he leant his chin against. I draw near him, announcing my arrival with a silent compliment: he answers blinking, inviting me to sit next to him. When the trial starts, I take the floor, and Mr. Georges Radu Şerban approves with the same serious blink. And my voice rises higher and higher. I don't care about the impression my words make on the motionless timeworn faces of the seven high magistrates. I am completely indifferent to what my colleagues and the opposite side might think; I hardly think about the audience, I have at most a smile for them, as I remember my rookie-ignorance when, as a student, I used to hear the pleadings of my master now sitting on my right. It is only at the latter that I am furtively glancing when my voice starts uttering the most complicated and twisted reasoning. I discuss and present arguments and evidence generously giving my opponents the chance to bring forth counter arguments and then I gradually demolish them. The maestro agrees with the same almost imperceptible bent of the head; sometimes, when I venture too far, giving the opposite side the chance to reply, his forehead oscillates between approval and incertitude. […]The suspicions may come, nevertheless, they will complicate the situation even more: but they will try to conceal the fact to its total denial, to the unveiling of truth, to the last evidence. However, she wished all these to have been concentrated in a whole, following a certain gradation, more dramatically, more theatrically. And less of a ham, prince Tudor, to my greatest satisfaction, doesn't find this complex that I would have found instantly and would have given it the most agitated rhythm, the craziest and most breathtaking complication. A sample of what I could have done would donna Alba have, this much longed for donna of my dreams, when I tell her how I snatched the letters from Preda Buzescu. But the number of the letters has considerably diminished now. A terrible compunction provokes to me the persistent suspicion that these few white papers that have been left on the bottom of the snuffbox won't reveal, eventually, the tragic ending of the affair, which had hardly started to knock together. But for the largest part I am wrong. Mr. Georges Radu Şerban gets an idea of what was happening in the most common way – he gets hold of a note saying: "Tomorrow, three o'clock, my place", a "T" and a date (in figures) below. Donna Alba tells that to Tudor, after the first quarrel with the maestro. She looks extremely miserable that things revealed in such a stupid way, just when she had finished to put together the main strings of an astonishing adventure. "I had found a true-born aristocrat lady, an extravagant, complicated and stately one." So vexed was donna Alba at the discovery of the note "that when Mr. Georges Radu Şerban came to ask her about its origins, she shrugged her shoulders." But she was wondering how it got lost; she was sure she had put it in her secret case beside his other letters. And it wasn't a mere envelope, the content was brief, but the size of the letter was big, as he used to send her. And she scolded him for having had the fantasy of writing her so little: in front of a longer letter, of one of those explosions of happiness and longing that seized him once in a while, especially when he hadn't seen her for a few days, she would have felt more courageous…But in this case? Donna Alba wondered if she truly behaved like a coward…anyway, she made allowances for herself saying that "we only agreed to deny everything until the truth remained naked, stripped of its inquisitive fury."But I was wondering why donna Alba was exculpating or, better said, defending herself of her lack of wit. This was how they agreed to proceed to the last moment: denial all the way… I don't know why, but I found this slipping of the letter very curious. I didn't share my impression with prince Preda, but the circumstances seemed even more bizarre when I had reached this reasoning: she certainly accepted his invitation. If the letter had fallen into the hands of the maestro the day it was received, he would have followed donna Alba the next day and things would have been revealed. The memory of the visit she honored me with some time ago, in my one room flat, leaves no doubts upon such a procedure. Or there is another possibility: the maestro found the letter the days that followed, or maybe the very day of the consumed meeting, in the evening, when he returned from the palace. It was obvious that a man like Mr. Georges Radu Şerban didn't search through his wife's little boxes, admitting that instead of putting it into the locked and hidden who-knows-where box, she left it carelessly into some drawer of the toilet table: the envelope must have remained all the time at sight and it is strange how the prince, who didn't leave Bucharest those days (his whereabouts are shown step by step in his correspondence) didn't discover it a day earlier. Still, it might have slipped from donna Alba's pocket, I suppose. But from her pocket? How? From her purse, rather? Hmm…could she have carried the envelope for such a long time in her purse which, like any other woman, she opens all the time? I shrug my shoulders alone. Many explanations could be found eventually, but I don't know why, inquietude remains in my soul. Perhaps because the writing, which I can hear, becomes now even more dramatic. Donna Alba doesn't wonder how that "T" alone made Mr. Georges Radu Şerban think of his most formidable opponent. The explanation is as follows: "after the incident at the theatre – she writes – he didn't hesitate in his choice." But further on she doesn't mention anything else of that "incident", which completely puzzles me. Try as he might to prove the opposite, prince Preda doesn't seem to be informed on this issue. In the following letters she is anxious because Tudor doesn't answer; instead, she sends him several envelopes a day. In one of them she presents the second discussion she had with her husband regarding the note she lost. "My dear lady, this is the handwriting of my greatest enemy and I found it in your room, at the foot of the bed" – so, just as I had suspected: might the note have been left there for two days in a row – the cleaning woman would have taken it, or maybe it was her who handed it to the husband – but then, the question comes back: why didn't she hand it the first day? Or the servant lingered a little, so as to try herself…but the chain of assumptions can go on forever. Let's better hear the circumstances. Donna Alba confesses that this time too, she shrugged her shoulders and answered with contemptuous carelessness. "His chest throbbed like a far away thunder. Tudor, I want to tell you that even this adventure became interesting; I started to like it. Answer to me, is this the time to confess? Why don't you answer me? I want to know if you had any contact with him or with anybody connected to the story that regards us. God, if you keep postponing the answer I have the feeling that he will seize all these letters. Your courier must have betrayed us. God, is this possible? In this case, if you are the reader, Mr. Georges Radu Şerban, well, everything is just as you can see. And it was unbelievably beautiful. Too bad that it ends…and we enter a beautiful perpetuum that has the only fault of not tricking us further on with the promise. For, as you might have heard: the utmost beauty is overcome only by its own promise. And I'm afraid it might be so. Let's wait for the sequel. Yours unfaithful, Alba Ypsilant." I think I have closely rendered this letter ending that I asked prince Preda to repeat. When he stretches the hand for the next envelope I have the time to reflect more intensely at the reason for which he stopped answering. The courier didn't betray them since the letters reached the destination. Did Tudor Buzescu suspect that she started the adventure without warning him and that actually this was the extravagance of the "lady adventure" that she claimed to have invented? But, might he not like her last scheme that eventually led to the result he so much wanted? Indubitably, her lack of consistency (just the day before she was the one that ardently opposed any sort of direct warning of the one cheated from any of them).Then, the breaking of the consensus: not informing the partner on time and especially this persistence in blaming on the chance a deliberate act, all these might have determined Tudor to spend some time on examining things more closely. However, the fact that she kept on denying to her husband although she had laid the truth in front of him so plainly, wasn't it another reason for Tudor to believe that she would like to step outside like a simple viewer, letting the conflict unreel only between the two of them – in other words, donna was not so mad about him, since she wasn't willing to take his side completely. On the contrary, she seemed to leave it to destiny to show her who of the two gentlemen is worthier of her hand. This was perhaps "the judgement of destiny" that she had invoked long time before; but what Tudor had believed and how she actually let chance act!These things are better rendered in the letters that were left and that prince Preda is reading aloud. Listening to them I strengthen my suppositions until I finally reach the evidence. Donna Alba receives at last an answer from Tudor, but she is disappointed and even offended by his coldness. But she can find a very comfortable explanation for her and a quite uncomfortable one for him. Does he have second thoughts towards the affair? Is he afraid, does he back out? Therefore she was right not to tell her husband the truth: a lucky thought helped her, preventing her from being caught. She advises him to do the same: deny obstinately. And she hopes that things will turn out as he wished, that is – just as before. But this state of affairs will be considerably impeded by her husband's suspicions. Seeing each other will hardly be possible: they will have only the correspondence and their love will become truly maternal. "It will pass to an incomparably higher level", she rejoiced ironically, with cruel hypocrisy. Another letter: oh, he doubts her sincerity but cannot understand what drags him there. Could it be that she didn't dare much in front of her husband? She is curious as to his courage, a curiosity that she wouldn't have had before the long break in his correspondence and before she read the content of his first letter after this break. And today Georges asked how she explained the presence, in her private room, of a letter that mentioned a date arrangement of theirs evincing the handwriting he ultimately researched and was certain it belonged to his most fierce enemy, better said: to his sole enemy; and she serenely confesses to Tudor that she was surprised herself and asked her husband back if he didn't attribute a certain significance to the fact that it was this handwriting –an enemy's – and not another that was found in her room. "As you can see – she writes to him in amusement – for such an occasion I send you as a gift the gentleman, my husband. The moment he comes back and shouts that you confessed everything, then I will confirm, with the same candor I am writing to you now, that what you said was the naked truth. If you will speak first, Sir Knight." The last but one letter: donna Alba knows that her husband met Tudor. And infers from Mr. Georges Radu Şerban's attitude that he didn't confess everything. Or rather he didn't confess anything. But what did he declare then? What did he say? God, why didn't he let her know, why doesn't he? Why does he act on his own? Why did he break the consensus? The last one: oh, is that so? He – Tudor – answered Mr. Georges Radu Şerban mockingly, saying that he had no idea himself how the letter got there. It was addressed to another woman. Tudor found the incident very amusing. "Mrs. Alba, Mrs. Alba received a letter from me, an invitation to a date? he shouted in front of the angry husband. This is too much…not because the letter comes from me, but because Mrs. Alba could have received a letter from somebody." These are the words that drove the husband mad, and it is apparent that the tone or the mimicry of the questioned one had contributed to this, since Mr. Georges Radu Şerban challenged him instantly. (Not a word about the "incident at the theatre," but I had the clear feeling that it represented the first link of a chain that ended then.) Mrs. Alba keeps asking Tudor desperately to explain the meaning of these mocking words and to describe in detail the attitude he had then. She finds it utterly "unaccountable" how the challenge had as a reason an offence addressed to her. She was wondering what exactly from her attitude made him react in such a way and she demands – this time she summons him – immediate explanations for his entire behavior.Full of repetitions, this letter lacks somehow in coherence compared to the natural skillfulness or carefulness of the previous letters. The ending is really odd, too much opposed to the beginning not to make one think of either the pain of a woman truly in love or of a great sentimental maneuver and in the latter case, the restlessness and the disorderly succession of her sentences fatally betrays a rare skillfulness. Indeed, on the last page, donna Alba suddenly changes the demanding and contemptuous tone and says that she doesn't want any answer. One would think that this is a culmination of her grief if this sudden exclamation didn't follow: "Tudor, you will fight for me and I am asking you to write, well my dear, actually I am not. Don't write to me anymore. I'll come to you, I will defy all obstacles and all risks and will come to you to find out the answers to my doubts and my agony directly from you, my beloved, to encourage you with my embraces. God will help me to make things right; as for you, Tudor, wait for me at three p.m."When prince Preda finished reading, I was wondering if that last walk to her lover was not the first time I actually saw donna Alba. It is true that, the luxurious burial, which must have been Tudor's by all means, took place much later. Could he have protracted the formalities of the duel? Prince Preda has no idea about the preciseness of the dates. He merely emphasizes the importance that this last letter must have – a letter in which she indirectly wishes her husband's death. That "as for you" is worth as all the other letters put together. I ask Preda, although I am quite familiar with his brother's will, if the deceased left something to donna Alba, by some specific codicil or by some last-moment decision that was not included in the body of the main will. "Did he have time for something like that?" he motivates. And anyway, he relied heavily on his agility. He was an unequalled swordsman and an incredibly sharp shooter: at thirty feet he wouldn't miss a target out of a hundred, at fifty – he might miss one or two. But after seeing the will again, at the court, I realized, judging by the time of my exam, that the will was written around his death. Neither the theatrical comeback from donna Alba's last letter, nor her stormy "defying all risks" visit didn't work. Otherwise, the will would have given everything to her, so as to persecute his rival from beyond death. However, it is certain that prince Tudor died with the doubt that she hadn't yet decided to confess the whole truth to her husband. 

by Gib Mihăescu (1894-1935)