Old-Court Philanderers

excerpts "Que voulez-vous, nous sommes ici aux portes de l'Orient, où tout est pris à la légère."Raymond Poincaré*Welcoming the Philanderers"…au tapis-franc nous étions réunis."L. Protat**Although no further than the night before I had promised myself under oath to come back home early, it so happened that I slipped right then returning the following day round noon.Night would find me in between my bed sheets. I was losing count of time. I would have slumbered on, without a care, had it not been for the turbulent arrival of a letter that demanded my signature on reception. When awaken from sleep I am morose, glum, sullen. I did not sign. I just mumbled to be left in peace.I dozed off again but not for long. The miserable epistle came up again, accompanied by the crude light of a lamp. The knavish postman had thought fit to scribble my signature in his own hand. I was not grateful.I hate letters. In all my life I remember receiving just one, from my good friend Uhry, to have brought me good tidings. I abhor letters. At that time I had used to burn them unopened.Such would have been the destiny awaiting the new arrival. Recognizing the handwriting, I had pretty much guessed the contents. I knew by heart the insipid concoction of advice and rebuke the folks back home would serve me about every beginning of a month: advice to embark with manliness on the path of hard work, and rebuke at having procrastinated the task so much. And in closing, the ever-present entreaty for the Lord to have me in His sacred care.Amen! In the abominable condition I was in it would have been beyond my power to set sail in any direction. In fact, not even in bed could I make any move. Disjointed, with my back unhinged, it seemed to me I had attained a state of jelly. The fear of having been struck by palsy had budded in my fumes-soaked mind.Yeah, it had finally got me. For a month I had been carousing, gamboling, and gallivanting. In the last years circumstances had seriously tested me; huge billows had ruffled my small boat. I had defended myself poorly and, weary with everything beyond compare I had pinned my hopes of oblivion on a life of dissipation. I had been going at it too recklessly though and soon I should have been compelled to lay down arms. I was becoming marrowless. My strength was flagging. That evening I felt so crippled that I should not have thought myself able to get up even if the house had caught fire. Still, I found myself up and about, in the middle of the room, peering affrighted at the clock. I had just remembered a dinner invitation at Pantazi's.How lucky to have been awakened! Very lucky! I therefore cast a grateful eye to the parental letter; without it I should have missed a meeting with my dearest friend.I got dressed and then I walked out. Winter was starting to set in. It was a time to weep. Although there had been no rain, everything was wet; the drainpipes were flowing, the branches of the barren tress were dripping, while a cold sweat, trickled in thick drops on stalks and grills. This is the kind of weather most propitious for drinking. The infrequent passers-by looming in the mist were all tipsy. While descending the porch of a pub a lanky guy fell down in a bundle and remained there.I turned my head in disgust. The place picked up for that evening lay on Covaci Street which prompted me to take a cab. And a wise thing that was since when I arrived the other revelers had already downed a glass of plum brandy, while the special guest was at his third. I expressed surprise at the fact they had showed up in such a good time. Pantazi explained he had come straight from home, and Pashadia and Pirgu straight from "the club," the weather being too miserable for them to indulge in any aperitifs. Pantazi ordered another round of plum brandy. But the merriment that we toasted to was missing entirely. I feared lest I should fall asleep again. In that hall where a ribald merchant feast had started to go wild – it was on a Saturday – our party looked like an obsequial affair.We began to spoon in silence a borsch with sour cream and hot pepper. None of those at the table ever raised their eyes from the plate. Pirgu in particular seemed afflicted by a sort of black despondency.I should have started a conversation myself had not the fiddlers plunged into a tune, one of Pantazi's weaknesses, a slow, voluptuous and melancholy waltz, almost funereal. In its soft-flowing notes there flickered, nostalgic and endlessly somber, such a heart-rending passion that the very pleasure of listening to the music mingled with suffering. As soon as the smooth strings had started pouring out the bitter confession the whole audience went mum like under a deep spell. Ever more diffuse, lower, slower, bespeaking tenderness and disappointment, separation and torment, remorse and contrition, the song suffused in yearning would stray, wane, and sigh, down to the end, a lost belated and futile call.Pantazi wiped off his steamy eyes."Oh!" Pirgu said to Pashadia with a languid eye and a sweetish voice, "Oh! With this waltz I want to accompany you to your eternal rest as soon as possible; I think you won't make me wait too long for this feast of my young years. How splendid it will be, how splendid! Drunk, I and uncle Pantazi will extract warm tears from the bereft audience, while taking my good-bye in moving words from my eternally unforgettable friend."Pashadia kept silent."Yes," Pirgu continued, further mellowing his voice and glance, "it will be so beautiful! I shall bear your insignia on a pillow. And after seven years, at the great memorial service when they disinter you, I wager they will find you just as spiffed up, just as fastidious, just as dazzling, not a gray hair on you, pickled in quick silver and in spirits like a capsicum in salt and vinegar."But Pashadia was not listening to him, his mind elsewhere. This time Pirgu would get off with it and I felt much spited since there was no love lost between us.Left alone in Bucharest, to my own devices so to speak, though young I had refrained from keeping just any kind of company so that Gorica Pigu would have never been part of my limited set of acquaintances, all carefully culled, had he not been an inseparable companion of Pashadia's whom I revered beyond words.Pashadia was a morning star. Hazard had endowed him with one of the most consummate arrangements a human brain could hope for. I have now a good knowledge of many of those deemed luminaries of this country: in extremely few of them have I seen all in one and so wonderfully balanced that many lofty traits as in this wronged man who willingly destined himself to oblivion while still alive. And I have never met another to have aroused so much blind hatred against himself.I had heard that was due partly to his countenance. And yet what a beautiful head he possessed! Something disquieting was slumbering in him, so much refrained passion, so much fiery pride and ruthless antagonism oozed from the features of his withered face, from the blasé curve of the lips, the force of the nostrils, and that dim look under his heavy eyelids. And from what he said in a drawling and hollow voice, a sort of bitterness, and deep queasiness transpired. His life, from the story of which he seldom chose to reveal anything, had been a fierce battle started very early. Coming from a family of respectable and prominent people, he had been miserable since his birth, raised by unfamiliar hands, then banished abroad to study. On his return to the country he had been robbed by his own folks, relegated, harassed, persecuted and betrayed by everybody. What had not been plotted against him? With what glaring injustice had his endeavors been met, the day-and-night toil of his sacrificed youth, and how they had all conspired to bury him in silence! This iron creature had come out twice steeled from the difficult tests of all sorts visited upon him for so many years of tribulations, which could have shattered even a giant. Pashadia had not been a man to resign himself. His self confidence and cold blood has not abandoned him at the darkest of moments; steadfast in the pursuit of his goal, he had defeated all hostile, star-crossed circumstances and had artfully turned fate to his use. Nobody had know how to wait and endure like him, hard as a rock daring Fortune at crossroads. And then grabbing and raping it so that he could snatch what should have come to him duly not after such a troublesome ordeal. Once arrived where he had wanted to be he had surpassed himself, had eclipsed everybody, dazzling them, and, a terrible stud (with kid gloves though) he had frolicked and rollicked at his heart's desire. The path of grandeur had been cast wide open and smooth in front of him but now that he could aspire to anything he no longer craved a thing and had withdrawn. I supposed that this strange decision must have somewhat been motivated by fear of his own self because under his outer glacier appearance Pashadia ensconced a passionate nature. Crooked, tenebrous, despite all his self-control, he would often betray his true mettle in cynical bouts. All the venom that had amassed in his seared heart would have easily turned his power dangerous. He placed no confidence in virtue, in honesty, in good, or any kind of pity. Nor did he make any allowance for human foibles which seemed to be entirely alien to him.The fact he had retired from politics had come less like a surprise than the change that had occurred in his living style. At an age when with others repentance settles in, he, who had always served as a living example of moderation, had all of a sudden plunged into debauchery. Was that the revelation of a kind of life he had been living until then in the closet or the resumption of old habits which the urge to succeed had prompted him to discard for many a year? It was unnatural that such a shedding could have occurred so expeditiously. Fact is I have seldom happened to see such a handsome gambler, such an inveterate philanderer, and so grandiose a drinker. But could one say he had degenerated? Not in the least. Of a sober elegance, extremely dignified in his countenance and speech, he had stayed a Westerner and a man of the world in every respect. You could not have found a more suitable person to chair an assembly or an Academy. Seeing him go out in the evening, stiff and grave, a carriage following him a step behind, if you did not know him you would not for the world have believed in what filthy and squalid places this imposing gentleman was going to spend the night. For me this life was overwhelming to consider, and I suspected a dark drama with an unfathomable secret was taking place in his soul. If I have indulged somewhat too long in portraying the features of this noble figure it is because I did not want to miss an opportunity to make him live again in front of my eyes as his memory is so dear to me. Beyond the semblance of an ordinary scout of Bucharest's night dens of debauchery I have caught glimpses of a different man. And that man I used to meet elsewhere. A few steps away from MogosoaiaBridge, on a lonely lane in the shade of an old, flowerless garden sat a glum, unwelcoming old house. I was one of the few privileged persons to cross the threshold of that rich dwelling where the least nook reflected severely the soul of the master.I would find him in his study, an abode of quiet and recollection that shut off the outside world. My host's conversation kept me stuck in an armchair for innumerable unforgettable hours in that room upholstered with creamy cloth, with closets in the wall, and curtained windows. Pithy and comprehensive, restrained and consummate, without gauderies, strays and redundancies, his conversation had you enmeshed, amazed, ravished, enchanted. Pashadia was also a master of the quill and in his youth he had also painted beautifully. He knew history like nobody else and this had honed his innate gift for passing flawless judgment on people; he foresaw the impending, saddening downfall of many at the height of their glory, and I cannot forget how his eyes would spark sinisterly when he uttered the ill-boding presages. Pashadia Magureanu! I received the sympathy he nurtured for me like a gift of fate and now I pride myself on having been the disciple of this great rebel, such a stoic man, and of all the flaws people would find in him I did not care to admit to more than one – but that one unpardonable: his friendship for Gorica.Gore Pirgu was an incomparable, unrepeatable scoundrel. His insipid, impertinent tricks of a motley fool had made his fame of a clever bloke. To which was added, nobody knew why, the reputation of being a good fellow, although playing bad turns was the only thing he was good at. This joker had the heart of a dog-catcher and undertaker in one. Rotten to the bone since a child, a servant-hearted gambler, cavorting with all possible pimps and sharks, he had been the Benjamin of Café Cazes and the Cherub of bawdy houses. I was loath to delve deeper into the intricacies of this dry and sad nature that felt a perverted propensity only for what was soiled and putrid. Pirgu had in his blood a hankering for the Gypsy life of debauchery people once led in these parts of the old continent, with all the slum romances, drinking sprees at monasteries, ribald songs, abominations and filth. The game of cards that was his trade, and the worldly diseases that had tired him out before his time were the only things he could talk about, and represented the entire charm that delighted the minds of those who valued his asininity. And still Pashadia had picked him up as a partner though he openly despised him, mercilessly offending and humiliating him whenever he could."Please, don't let your table companion commit suicide! See, he's about to swallow his knife."Indeed Gorica had enthusiastically plunged a knife in the boiled sterlet, dumping the carved piece into mayonnaise. Then still using the knife, he shoved it deep into his mouth. I pretended not to see or hear anything. Pantazi leaned over to look for something under the table."In his precepts," Pashadia went on, "elementary manners say a knife should not go into vegetables and fish, nor a fork into cheese, and above all no knife in no mouth. But see, this is for refined people, boyar offspring, not for the rubble, the boorish grassroots. It's like trying to make a pig drink from a casket!"There could not have been a more sanguinary attack for Pirgu who deemed himself unsurpassed in the habits of the good society."Spare me such nonsense!" he barked, "or I'll change my tune. You're an insane old man…"To make peace Pantazi ordered a bottle of champagne to be uncorked and served, as is our custom, in flutes. Pirgu accepted only a few drops in his glass and then mixed it with almost a liter of mineral water, some kind of light soda. Of us four he was the only one who could not hold his liquor. You might as well say he pretended to imbibe strong stuff, when in fact he would quaff spritzers with blue soda. Seldom did he reach morning sober though and when he got pickled he would carry out a lot of pranks. Had he had any decency he would have been ashamed to face the world after such hateful performances.Toasting in one voice the health of our beloved guest, Pantazi, we began to sip with relish the invigorating drink. Pirgu did barely taste the liquor that he pulled a wry face."Champagne without lasses," he grumbled, "is not worth a brass farthing!"Women had been definitely removed from our feasts once and for all. All the attempts Gorica had made to have a girl friend or two allowed to our partying had met with failure. Pantazi would have gladly looked the other way but Pashadia was adamant. Therefore we limited ourselves to making sheep eyes to the ladies at the neighboring tables who, more often than not, would return an artful look.With his dim, morose glance Pashadia was undressing a plump Jewish woman seated in front of him a little farther off. I joined him in this Christianly deed, knowing that did not offend my great friend in any way. Fully aware of her wondrous Eastern beauty in perfect bloom, white and matte like a wax figure on which the velvety eyes sparkled like a cold flicker between the silk eyelids, she stood motionless, impassive, with the boundless pride of the chosen nation, just like her ancestors dragged divested to the slave marts, or later on, pulled on Torquemada's wracks. Sitting crossed-legged, her dress had run up to the knees, allowing pale glimpses of her flawlessly carved thighs under the translucence of the black stockings. When she decided to cover that sight it was without haste and without as much as a blush. Pirgu was shamelessly importuning a tradeswoman with a ruddy face under much dressing, all fluffed up and bedecked. Smiling amorously, his eyes half closed, he raised his glass, sipped gingerly, then smacked his lips avidly. Only Pantazi was not eyeing anybody. Dreamy like always, his glance rambled yond, sad and gentle. He ordered more champagne.Pirgu was carrying the thing to excess. With one hand using his empty flute as binoculars, with the other he was blowing kisses to the buxom tradeswoman who was so full of good cheer. Pashadia advised him to quiet down lest he might be courting trouble."Mighty fine that will look if you were kicked out of the place."Pirgu cast him a look of scornful pity."You think perhaps I am like you to be thrown out hands down like a caitiff and a rascally knave? That there's anyone who doesn't know me here or elsewhere, who doesn't love me, where I'm not at home?" And to prove he was not exaggerating he got up and went to the merchant's table, kissed the woman's hand and whispered something in her ear, then did more table-hopping, finally to chat longer with the beautiful Jewish woman."Little Rachel asked me," he said when he came back, "how come a fine person like myself, the son of a boyar, can assemble with such common people? She was indignant. I prayed she didn't give it so much thought. One of my companions is a rotten old man. There was a time when he was a person to be reckoned with but now he's in his dotage. The other one's a child."Pashadia swallowed hard and made no reply. I followed suit. I could not help admiring how many people Pirgu knew.All kinds of people and all classes of people, a lot of people, all the people. Indeed was there anyone he did not know, any place he had not been introduced to? The locked homes of the fearful and fearing tradespeople, the dungeoned citadels of the lucre-saturated Jewry, the flimsy nests of the boyarly pest, they all received Gorica with widely opened arms though not always by the front door. It stuns the mind how he did not awaken disdain or fear anywhere. How nobody wanted to perceive in that yelping cur, crawling on his paws and fawning smirkingly, how spite leaped awake, ceaselessly setting against everybody a filthy, maddened beast, prone to enmity, evil and hurt, which seemed to serve as fate's instrument of undoing and annihilation. As a matter of fact he did not shy from owing to his miserable nature, priding himself on deeds that the law should requite with jail or the bedlam.As a schoolboy he would take his friends to sick women. He enjoyed an untarried devilish inspiration for this sort of things. He had turned into an apostle of incitement to debauchery to which he had devoted himself body and soul. A crafty peddler of everything and past master at artful tricks, he had been the architect of many a bankruptcy of ready-moneyed youths and the downfall of several women; because of him, famous names had been smeared with dishonesty. Seldom was there any abominable affair that did not bear his trademark or in which he had not dabbled, often out of a cruel and insatiable craving for mockery to placate which he did not refrain from anything: spying, defamation, gossip, brawl, delation, revelation of a secret entrusted or forcefully extracted, unsigned messages – everything was just as good for him, each had its usefulness. The question arising was what more had Gogu Pirgu to do to pass for a bad chap?Already flattered by my admiration I didn't need to ask him twice to recount the latest happening of Madam Mursa. He was interrupted though by the departure of little Rachel. With lithe, flowing movements she walked to our table to get her coat hanging in the neighboring rack. Pirgu jumped to her assistance. Little Rachel was as beautiful as can be; most adequate the simile of a woman and a flower – a black exotic flower, ripe with poison and honey – arisen incidentally by the warm, dizzyingly passionate odor she spread around with every movement. From close quarters her beauty did not lose any of its brilliancy yet had something repugnant about it. You felt in her, more than in other women, the stranger, Eve, the irreconcilable and eternal enemy, the disseminator of temptation and death. When bending to our table, her quiet eyes, sparked harshly, clashing with Pashadia's.A stooping, quite gaunt lad, with rings under his glassy eyes, and unhealthily, flustered cheeks shuffled behind her. A hollow cough gave him no rest. The smile accompanying his good-bye to Pirgu seemed to bear the pain of a final separation."He's Misu," Pirgu whispered to us. "He's on his last legs, he's leaving us. She's finished off this one too. Two men in three years, not to mention what she had on the side. Fine piece of work, upon my honor!" And to Pashadia: "Well, it seems to me you'd like to try your luck? Tell me, you think you're equal to the task? I must know if I am to put in a word for you, it's right up my alley, anyway."Instead of replying, Pashadia drained his glass of the last drop."After all, why should you shilly-shally?" Pirgu insisted. "You're with one foot in the grave. Everybody knows you've been making it only on licorice cordial and plum jam for some time. If you're at the end of your rope why not go happy?"Meanwhile the pub got all afoot. Many had risen from their table, rushing to the door. Bugles sounded the arrival of the firefighters. The boy who served us said it was nothing: a basket had burst into flame near the Old Court church and had been put out before the fire machines had come. As some of the patrons were the owners or tenants of the houses over there, at the thought that the blaze, so perilous in those narrow lanes with attached house, could have spread over to their place had lost their cool.The subject of the Old Court was broached. Had it not been for the green-turret church that bears its name not even its memory would have survived. With his well-known skill, Pashadia lay before us everything he knew in connection with the dwellings of the princes of yore. Nothing much, seemingly. Like the entire city, the Court had burnt down and been rebuilt several times. It had stretched, assuredly, on a considerable area since remains of vaulted foundations could be found throughout the district, for instance under the pub where we sat. It was easy to imagine how the Court had looked like since by and large it must have resembled Romanian monasteries, with several buildings in its composition to house the whole caboodle, erected according to no plan whatsoever, and no style, with additions, fillings and patches, in its ugliness fit to serve as background for a ruling class composed of every possible alien rejects and copiously laced with Gypsy blood.I asked him whether it was not the instability of the princes and the fear of inroads that was to account for the fact that nothing grand and lasting had been achieved here as in the West. The noble pleasure to build did grace some of our voivodes: Brancovan for instance had constructed rich courts on his extensive estates. Pashadia said it wasn't; love of beauty is one of the privileges of high-born nations, and ours could not be deemed among those as it had not enriched civilization by anything. Then he immediately found a bone to pick with Brancovan whose princely cap he knocked off, together with the bonnet of prince of the holy empire, the crown of Hungarian count, and his Saint Andrew of Russia chain. With a few touches he painted him as an adept Gypsy chef, treacherous and servile, a slavish soul. True that he too had caught the fever of building, planting and decorating that once had raged over the worthies of his times. But what remained in the wake of this filthily rich wretch who reigned when the Baroque flourished fully? What did he leave after him: the pillars of Hurez, the porch of Mogosoaia, Potlogi, what? And we dare pride ourselves on such a stunted, meager and paltry affair? This subject should be dropped once and for all for pity's sake!We were not surprised by his outburst. Looking on and judging everything Romanian with ruthless harshness, Pashadia's unrelenting passion would often verge on ill-faith. The hatred unabashedly smoldering in him would rise up and twirl vigorously huge, making him spark up like embers, and surge like billows. As I could not entirely find him in the wrong, I deemed flying at the defense of that past redundant, although its greatness had bred in me a wonderful altar screen of icons diligently assembled with nearly religious dedication. But that was not necessary as Pashadia himself somehow went back on his severe opinion."Strange enough," he confessed, "that although as art I find them lesser even than their historical memory I cannot dispute the particular charm of these humble vestiges. My fancy soars in front of the most insignificant of them, and I feel moved, deeply moved.""I for one understand you very well," Pirgu interjected. "It's only natural since you too are a ruin, a venerable ruin, not very well preserved though."Laughter. This is how we made merry. For about a month, the cult of Comus had brought us together for lunch or dinner. But true pleasure we derived from talking, from conversing only about beautiful things: trips, the arts, the letters, history – history above all – floating unto the serene sky of the academe from where Pirgu's jokes would plunge us into mud. It was saddening how in his lack of training this enemy of the printed letter would stay alien to what was being discussed. On the contrary, Pashadia found in Pantazi a clear mind, a knowing and free spirit; I was loath losing a single word of their lofty swap of ideas and knowledge, and the fact that I was left with the notes taken during those conversations comforts me but does not make up for all the things lost from the war henceforth.To my considerable regret, that evening we had to bring our banquet to an end sooner. Pashadia was to leave for the mountains round midnight."I shall look forward to the day of my return," he said. "We'll meet at my place." And to Pirgu: "We'll arrange a little game of poker, right? You'll get more versed."This inflamed Pirgu terribly and to let off some steam he poured out a flow of indignities, passing from the swear words on the lips of carriage drivers to a florist's cusses, and the curses of Gypsy house painters. We then learnt that before dining, Pashadia had played viciously against Pirgu at the gambling house, and in an extended meet had fleeced him good. Pirgu had lost twenty-five notes of twenty, and was owing just as much.To cool him down, Pantazi asked him if he needed money. Pirgu replied proudly he did not, which took us aback even when we saw him taking a sheaf of hundred notes out of an envelope. He had played all night in a private house, at the Arnotenis, and was loaded. Pashadia asked for his debt."That is not possible!" said Pirgu.Pantazi paid the bill, tipping royally the boys and the fiddlers. We got going. When we reached the narrow lane, the closed cab waiting for Pashadia in front of the pub could not come over because of a bunch of people that ambled past us, laughing and shouting. At the heart of the crowd, howling like a beast, a woman was fighting three stiff gendarmes who could barely overcome her. Finding ourselves so close as to touch her, the four of us stepped back.Old and seared, her head uncovered, dressed in rags, a foot bare, in her terrible rage the woman seemed a bat out of hell. Dead drunk, she had puked on her and had also loosened her bowels which made the day of the herd of hoodlums and easy women who had fallen into a cortege, shouting at her: "Pena! Pena Plumcot!"I noticed Pantazi suddenly giving a start and going ash pale. Upon seeing us, Plumcot flew into a blind rage. What we heard could have made the most pagan of hearts shudder. Pirgu himself was left speechless."Listen carefully and commit everything to your memory!" Pashadia whispered to him. "Now you have the chance to round off your home education."The gendarmes removed the woman. Pantazi struck a conversation with a little girl who, smilingly, had all the time kept her nimble and haughty eyes on that melancholy sight of human misery. He asked her who the old miserable was now crawling on all fours like an animal, somewhere further up on the bridge, unwilling to rise to her feet."It's Pena Plumcot," explained the little girl. "She's had a drop too much again. When she's sober, she's decent, but when she's pickled, she always kicks up a row."After unobtrusively placing something in her hand, Pantazi interrogated her more. He learnt that Pena lived by the Old Court, used to sell candles in the church, and do odd jobs in the market. She had even been committed to the loony house once.Eventually, the gendarmes managed to get her up with great pains. When she saw herself on her feet and laid eyes on us again she flared up again, ready to start all over her auspicious entreaty. But being rattled too much she choked, and her voice faltered to a blabber."Philanderers!" she managed to shout at us, "Old-Court Philanderers!"Had someone different, from another epoch spoken through her voice – who knows? But nothing in the world could have pleased Pantazi more than this long-forgotten, out-of-use phrase. His face had lit up and he could not get enough of repeating it."Indeed a most fortunate association of words," Pashadia admitted. "It throws into the shade the equal purport 'Courtiers of the bronze horse' used at the time of Louis XIII. There's something equestrian, mystic about it. It would make a splendid title for a book.""Unfortunate Pena," Pantazi murmured glumly after a silent moment. "Most hapless creature, who would have thought to meet you again? The things you remind me of!""What? You know her?" Pirgu asked with surprise."Yes. It's an old story. A love story like you have never seen. It happened at the time of the 1877 war. I don't think the vivid memory the Russians left with women, with women of every condition has faded to this day. Sheer madness it was! On mats, under lacy baldachined-beds, a shower of rubles covered greedy Danaes. The Russians had found a Capua in Bucharest. The ladies had eyes only for the Russian officers. The one who had them smitten was Leuchtenberg Beauharnais, the handsome Serghie, the nephew of the emperor. Vainly did they wait for him to drop a handkerchief. Chance had it that from the very first night he had fallen into the arms of a common woman and could no more disentangle himself. She was a girl from the slums, not very young, with some gray hairs at the temples; I knew her from masked balls and from summer gardens. The charm of this creature, usually glum, rather strange than beautiful, resided in her eyes, big green eyes, a dim sort of green, fish-offal as the Romanians put it, with long lashes, powerful eyebrows and a distraught look. Could others have been the allurement enmeshing the heart of the duke? Perhaps. The thing is that, equally shared by the two, a passionate love enflamed the flower-of-the-slums and the Prince Charming whose regal creature reunited the spark of two imperial crowns. It was a settled thing by now that Pena would follow her prince and lord to Russia. But then Leuchtenberg died like a crusader in the Balkans. We accompanied his body to the Prut river. On the evening of October 19, 1877 the mortuary train, one car turned into a burning chapel where, among a profusion of flames and candles, several priests in surplices and knight-guards in polished breast-plates kept vigil over the hero's coffin ensconced under flowers, passed through Bucharest stopping only for a few moments to receive the honors. A lacerating cry rose from the crowd and a woman collapsed in a heap. You guess who it was. When she came to they had to restrain her.Thirty-three years have gone by since then.Pantazi tapped his cigarette. Pena's melancholy story occasioned us no less pleasure than her matchless indignities. Pashadia said his good-bye and climbed into the carriage."Good riddance!" Pirgu shouted to him.Now Gorica was unsteady on his feet and had difficulty in speaking. He went through some pain to word the story of how he had gambled against a priest; the late Poker himself would not have played better."And yet I got myself into a bit of a bother," he complained, "I certainly did, and I can't find solace. But that old Pharisee will pay for it. And dearly, I tell you. I'll clean him out."He then insisted that we go with him."Come, gents," he goaded, "come, I shan't take you anywhere bad." We asked him where. "To the Arnoteni's," he replied. "The genuine Arnoteni."It was not for the first time that Pirgu insisted to take us there. To get him out of our hair we promised to accompany him anywhere some other time. Not this evening. At MogosoaiaBridge we parted company, Pirgu going to the Post Office, and we taking the road to Sarindar. The night was humid and cold, the fog was growing ever thicker. I was looking forward to the warmth of my bed when, as usual, Pantazi asked me to stay with him. Could I have refused him when for his sake I was ready to do what not? If for Pashadia I felt reverence for Pantazi I had a weakness: one begins in the head, the other in the heart and no matter how much one tried, the heart passes before the head. I had been fond of that strange man even before I had come to know him. I had the feeling of having always been a friend of his, and more, of having found in him another self.[…]Hardly was the meal over that Pirgu felt like decamping. The man was thirsty. At that time, praised be the Lord, you could find Bordeaux and Bourgogne wines, and not costing an arm and a leg, to grace any princely feast. But Gorica could not stomach them, being partial to lighter, indigenous wine, to garden wine. He would find such prize libation in some God-forsaken dump and would drag us there to sour our palates with some mildewy and turgid rotgut. An old salt, Pantazi would drink what you put in front of him, even more smoothly than Pashadia who was not looking for beverage but for hubbub, light, and a crowd. From there we went some place else, as he remembered some crazy must sold on a high porch or some red that could make you as happy as a clam at high water. Between two pubs we had a coffee at Protapeasca's or at Pepi Smarot's, chatting with the girls over a drink while Pirgu would get Pashadia or someone else a date. We then climbed up to the "club" where Pashadia would try his hand at chemin-de-fer, standing, to make it snappier; but this happened only now and then for otherwise women and gambling were reserved the hours before supper. By our third stop it was already time for solid whoopee. The city's sinister night-birds would fuss and fidget around us. With them Gorica felt at ease, and let his hair down. Like quick silver he would slip from one table to another, raising peels of laughter; thanks to him the feast would fledge and grow wild; he told the fiddlers what to play, treated them to drinks, kissed them smack on the mouth, then flew in a rage and slapped them. As a matter of fact, at dawn everybody was spoiling for a fight as a rule. Remote from the swelling ruckus, Pantazi and Pashadia continued their musings as if thousands of miles away from the scene and as if only silence could have troubled their dreaming. Strange thing though, when Pirgu happened not to come – had to deal with the matter of a funny note or got delayed by a game with Mehtupciu – then even if we went there he had taken us before, we snoozed in front of a drink. And everything was lame and lifeless since only he, the very embodiment of the foul and filthy spirit of Bucharest, could animate that world of the night. That is why we followed him without demurring. With him in sleet and pouring rain we trod the mud of alleys without pavement or name at the outskirts, in the back of vacant lots heaped with refuse and carrion. We entered almost on all fours into overheated low-ceiling dumps, with clay floors and painted just as fresh as the Gypsies women who in their red or yellow rags, bare-footed, with a piece of cloth under their knees, would give themselves to butchers and intestine preservers for a small coin, a draft of liquor or a package of cigs. And although we did not go there with the family, we managed to stoop even lower. Afterwards we would linger in the market place, nursing a tripe broth until dawn.Dawn…… Pashadia would pucker his face, as if trying to shake off a bad dream. I avoided looking at his contorted figure then, meeting his dazed eyes the terror of which nobody could express. With a pained heart his assassin forefather must have turned slowly just like that, for fear not to be caught on the road in full daylight. Finally we parted ways, each traipsing his carcass: Pashadia and Pantazi straight home, I to the steam bath, Pirgu to the midwife who massaged him with rose vinegar. His debauches, no matter what they might have been, had come to look natural on him. So at Jarcaleti where he lived with his parents his gossipy neighbors were no longer surprised to see him come home in the morning accompanied by two street organists each singing a different tune, or with a bear, with dancers or masks, in a water cart, on a stretcher or in a hearse.[…]The Twilight of the Philanderers "Vous pénétrerez dans les familles, nous peindrons des intérieurs domestiques, nous ferons du drame bourgeois, des grandes et des petites, bretêches."Monselet*In spring, his goings away were ever more frequent, his stays ever longer.As soon as he returned, Pashadia would invite us for lunch. Thinking he could have something to talk with Pantazi to whom he was ever closer, and affairs that regarded only themselves I slipped into the habit of leaving them alone for an hour or two right after serving coffee, as Pirgu also did.I would depart with him after having carefully inquired, before we got to the gate, about his destination so that I could go the opposite way. Once he asked me whereto I was heading. I told him to the Academy."I didn't know they reopened it. I wonder why I haven't learnt this. It will catch fire again, you'll see. Billiards is out of fashion. Only peanut merchants still play such old tricks. Pity! There were some nice games once."He insisted strongly to accompany me. I explained I was not going to the BilliardsAcademy but to the RomanianAcademy. He inquired what I was doing in that place and appeared sincerely disappointed to hear that I went there to read. He actually rebuked me."You don't want to quit this nonsense, do you, uncle? So much reading will turn your head to mush. You don't mean to join Pashadia in his fixation? Or you think it such a big deal to know like he does who brought Mohamed into this world or the name of the chap who first went out with the cross on Epiphany? It's nothing. These things will dry you out. True knowledge lies elsewhere. It's the school of hard knocks that matters and that you don't get from books. "Before you showed up today they were talking about you writing a novel of Bucharest mores and I had to fight to keep back laughter. Seriously, you and Bucharest mores! Chinese perhaps, for in this respect you're Chinese. How can you know mores when you don't know anybody? Do you go to see folks? Unless you intent to depict us, Pasha, myself, and Panta; I don't know that you have business with others. Oh, yes, Little Ass, your pal. If only you went to people's houses, to various families. Well, that will be another pair of shoes. You'll see how many topics you'll find, and the types! I know a place."I promptly suggested:"At the Arnotenis, the only true Arnotenis."He made a revealing and confidential gesture:"There'll be something in it for us. Big gambling until morning. They put the money we kibitz, the silverless doctors, what."For the umpteenth time I promised him I would, some time, thus escaping the irksome insistence with which, in the last six months, he had been endeavoring to draw me to that profligate house. Nothing could have induced me to believe therefore that it would be through my intermediate that he attained his goal during another feast at Pashadia's place. But then I felt remorse in the end only for not having assisted him in fulfilling it sooner.Somewhat weary by now with erudite stuff I yearned to make merry, to paint the town red. Gorica seemed to have gone beyond himself with enthusiasm: Pashadia was about to kick him out several times. I had never seen in him such a prankish merriment, liberal and excessively farcical, alien to his character and yet not forced. The meaning of all this he allowed us to glimpse only towards the end: his father had died.He curtly interrupted the condolences that Pantazi and I hurried to extend, bidding us not to make too much of it."I would understand," he conceded, "if you showed your compassion for not having been rid of such a pest sooner."Well, if Sumbasacu Pirgu had croaked some ten or twelve years before and had left him sooner the twenty thousand lei due to each of the eight children left of the seventeen he had we expected Gore would not have come to be what he was: a governess for old geezers? What a piece of work he would have become! The most brilliant lawyer, the glory of the Romanian bar! He would have defended Pashadia of the charges of moral turpitude and would have acquitted him proving his impotence. A lawyer and professor at the University he would have taken up literature in his spare time, would have lashed out against improbable mores, would have concocted plays – bad ones, naturally, historical – and patched together dialogues between characters from special ages, impersonating forceful personages, strutting, fretting, bellowing. Would he have contented himself with that? Not in the least. A spokesman of the holiest democratic claims, he would have demanded in the County's Assembly the division of the estates among the peasants and suffrage to all. A speech – not more hollow or meatless than those disagreeably besmirching the air of the Hall on the Metropolitan Hill of parliament – took shape immediately. Distinguished as he was he could have become a diplomatist, too; What? Was it imperative for that to have his curiosities like Little Ass? As a matter of fact, why not, wasn't he always close to Pashadia? Yet, his sweetest of dreams had been a patriarchal life in the countryside. He would have tilled the land in a wholesome spirit, would have tended his vine…"Splendid," I said, "and now that you have become a happy heir, what do you intend to do?""I shall go to the brothel of Crucea de Piatra [Stone Cross], have my doxy, my wenches, and my pimp. Then I shall be guardian in a church; in my old age, I shall even become a monk, upon my honor. And people will hear a meek God-serving monk Gherasim, Ghideon or Gherontius, a singer at Darvari's Skete at Icoanei, when his turn come to read and sing, uttering 'I pass or I see you'." And to give us a sample of his call for this anchorite life for three quarters of an hour he mumbled and snuffled like a priest a medley of religious and worldly songs: Sweet Spring, and From Tree to Tree, Christ Has Risen and Ma parole d'honneur mon cher, Hollowed Be Thy Name and I haram bam ba. Pantazi wiped his tears with so much laughter, while Pashadia looked resigned. But suddenly Gore remained mum, and his eyes bulging with fright, he raised his right hand taking his forefinger to his ear then staying stock-still. Pantazi asked him what was the matter."What? You don't hear it? 'The bugle sounds and the tricolor is being hoisted.'" Then he howled with extreme disappointment: "'Give me, my me an arm, I want to die in battle, not a slave in slavery, give me, give me my horse!'" He sat astride on a chair and wanted to spur it enthusiastically but tripped against the carpet and fell flat on his face without hurting himself though for he stood up immediately. Straightly and nimbly, as if not touching the floor, he showed us how he would do the round dance across the Carpathians, between the Tisa and the Dniester, the dance uniting all Romanians. And then he whirred and warbled about flowers in one's cap. After which he vanished for a time to return soon his pants down and his shirt hanging out, sulking, down in the mouth; it had dawned on him that neither that day – the happiest of all of his life, when everything augured so pink in the very near future, alas not Pashadia's – not even that day we would not humor him and accompany him to the Arnotenis', the true Arnotenis. And why was that? We must have known that nowhere could one spend the time more mirthfully; an easy game, chemin de fer, poker, whatever, where else could you find that at all time? At Arnotenis'. A light beverage, a spritzer, a brandy, a spiked coffee, where? At Arnotenis'. A gentle lass to one's heart content, well, where? Also at Arnotenis' alone, the only true, god-blessed boyar family, decked with all possible Christian virtues. Honestly speaking Major was a monkey, but Madam Elvira, what a matron! And the girls, what pussycats, what fillies! If we refused it was only to deal him a blow, to offend him; it was not nice of us, it was not behooving to behave like that with a brother. He became sour. And pulling out his shirt he covered his face and burst into bitter tears.Had he been honest, and even then, he still would have deserved no compassion. If he failed to hit his cheap target it was entirely his fault; after all, he knew very well that during the night when we were with Pashadia we followed him anywhere blindly and it would have been so easy to take us there without asking us whether we were agreeable and without telling us beforehand. Perhaps he had thought of it, in fact, it was simple as ABC, but he had feared it. But we did get to the Arnotenis despite our staunch position of reluctance at having to set foot in that place of perdition. No matter how improbable it might have sounded, how much a plume in the wind of fate he could have felt, he looked flabbergasted when he noticed that all I had to do was just drop a hint about going that evening to the true Arnotenis'. And Pantazi replied "why not?" while Pashadia said he didn't care what the place was. Lucky thing Gorica didn't go mad for good; he was besides himself, whining, rolling on the floor, tumbling in a frenzy, all of a flutter and we had to threaten him we wouldn't go any more to make him renounce his decision to ride one of the horses drawing the carriage. You shouldn't find it strange that I didn't know the name of the street where the Arnotenis' place stood: for the one month when I was there almost every minute I never went in other than by the back entrance, in the fenceless yard giving on the right bank of the Dimbovita, somewhat higher than Mihai Voda. It was more convenient and I could pass unseen.I have an unpleasant memory from my first visit. I experienced then an hour of self-remonstrance when I myself decried my debasement. Oh, God what people mingled in the place that night, what handshakes I had to put up with! Bitter, the reprimand Pashadia had once made rang unfailingly in my ears. A sad night if only for the boredom of it! Pirgu was no longer funny, playing the manager, arranging gambling tables, fixing places. He put Pashadia to a poker table, Pantazi at a chemin-de-fer, both with a woman on their right and left. In the silence before the first strike, whispers, and muffled laughter, also a sigh could be heard from the unlit rooms giving to the spacious hall in the middle.I tried to pick the best moment for taking a French leave; anyway, they wouldn't catch me there a second time. I was sighing relieved when at the door I stumbled on the "soul of souls ," Madame Masinca Dringeanu."So you are fleeing, and you do that in order not to take me home," she whispered extending a small gloved hand, palm up so that I can kiss a snippet of naked flesh at the wrist. You don't love me anymore…" "My lady," I cut her short, I could accept the burden of all possible inequities but not this!" And that was no vain assertion on my part. Could one not be crazy about her? Not that she had remained beautiful despite age, which she had deceived just like she had her two lawfully wed husbands and God knows how many unlawfully, but also because she possessed a come-hither manner that one just couldn't resist, plus all the trappings, and the acts and the glances. I naturally changed my mind about leaving and witnessed an unusua