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The Woman who Died Young
|by Dibyendu Ghosal|
What William Shakespeare had written about Cleopatra – ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale’ – rings a little hollow for her. However great she was, she was acutely aware of the impending mortality that comes with advancing age. Her fans, too, diligently, and often cruelly, have always tracked the decline of their beloved heroine as she was becoming older.
There can never be a peak without a decline. Persis was all about elegant decadence in the ‘80s. But once the factory chimneys started to spew more venom than smoke heralding a new revolution in the society, she started to fade away as well as her slow dancing, the twist like the magician’s flirtation with the evening clientele. The lanes and by-lanes on her body, given a new sheen, can never get back that splendid ‘80s look – when money was about class and seldom revealed itself despite the lavishness. Persis was getting back on her feet but looked a much older woman, almost a hag when I went to meet her.
Not every super-rich male took to Persis the way one takes to fish or the way fish takes to water. The aristocracy descended on her and she always made polite conversation in a language dripping with Victorian affection. She used to enjoy her “er-rather loud” Darjeeling tea with them in the evening.
These young and old aristocrats sometimes ran out of money and could not buy booze.
While talking to me a few months ago about this matter, a nostalgic Persis once
It is also said : “Pavements trade places at midnight.” In this context , these people were not sinners, only rebels.
Every sinner has future just as every saint has past.
She used to conceal those 'sinful' delights in the many pleats of her bouncy evening skirt . She was the perfect appetizer for ‘melting ice visitors’. She used to open ever so delicately to give her visitors that pleasing vision of chunks floating in butter and cream.
She was a bone-structured lady. A hollow-cheeked beauty – during her talking, her sweet little cracked-china voice soared into regions only lucky dogs can hear. Platinum blonde, with a heart-shaped face, delicate, impish features and a figure made to be swathed in silver lame,– her wriggled expressions..... managing to make lovable even a spoiled, stupid rich girl like her.
"The depression comes and goes, but in our Age of the Depressed, she is still a tonic."
She used to offer herself to the best client in the way the best 'Darjeeling brew' is offered . Even to this day, this was the kind of tea one do not rush through. One sips it silently with one’s lips poised for an extra second or two on the rim of the cup. The expensive china material of the cup knows it should never interfere in that bonding between one’s lips and the tea.
Her place was more about music and dance. This was a melting pot where she crooned and sang her heart out. Her music had more to do with the wind. In an environment where those characters used to reveal in breaking taboos, Persis was the ultimate destination. And the ‘rare’ at dizzy Persis’ place was rarer than the British steak.
Persis never believed in charity. Neither did she believe in gloss. Persis had always been married faithfully to the good life.
Charles had a special place in this lady’s life.
Charles and this spirited mistress of him were enjoying everything about their Roman Spring. Once they had spent the afternoon shopping and drinking and, back in their hotel room, pushed the single beds together to enjoy a more comfortable tryst ……
But the couple’s idyll was about to come to an abrupt end. For soon, Charles’ wife, the beautiful Lauren, would arrive in Italy with their children.
For years, Persis, who in her prime bore a striking resemblance to the Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth, had kept secret her passionate affair with Charles which lasted throughout his fabled marriage to Lauren.
Now, for the first time, sitting in this sultry French Quarter with me, Persis has spoken openly about her love for Charles, and how he asked her to marry him. For 15 years, both before his marriage to Lauren and throughout it, Charles’ real passion was not for his ice-cool bride but for his high-spirited mistress who was surprisingly married to another man.
Persis Johnson shared beds all around the world with Charles, who even sealed their romance with a fabulous 10-carat diamond ring.
Although rumors of Charles’ unusually close relationship with Persis were whispered among the insiders, remarkably their romance had always remained a secret . No one, after all, would want to believe that Charles and Lauren were doing any more than peddling dreams.
During a visit to Mexico City, she met a Parisian young and beautiful lady. Learning her skills, she became much in demand by the make-up world. Charles quickly dubbed his straight-talking friend ‘Pete’ – her married name was Peterson – and she became his favorite companion.
But beneath their friendship used to run a deep love.
“He often asked me to marry him,” Persis recalled ,”He was getting divorced because his wife had a violent temper, but I couldn’t divorce my husband when he was away fighting for his country. “
“Yes, I was mad at him,” she said affectionately. “But I knew Charles. I knew what happened. He got drunk and he got married and then he regretted it.”
Four months later, he asked, “Can we resume our affair?”
“Of course. And so we continued having great times.”
These included using Persis’ marital home for lunch-time assignations.
“Once, my husband came home and found Charles in the shower, yelling :”Let me get at him. I ‘ll kill the son-of-a-bitch!” she continued,” I insisted on my husband that I brought the man home only to sober him up, divorce was inevitable.”
Now Persis was free, but Charles was not.
“Often we met in borrowed love nests and weekends on Charles’ 40 ft. yacht, The Fountain. The yacht’s captain certainly shared our secret,” she laughed .
“We traveled together, making few attempts to be discreet,” continued Persis, “Finally, however, we both acknowledged that the relationship could not progress any further.”
When I visited Persis , the old thick "The Complete Fortune-Teller" volume, which was lying on a table at her elbow, so worn by pocketing that the margins had reached the edge of the type. She took it up . Her jacket and bonnet were already hanging slyly upon a chair by her side, in readiness for this contemplated jaunt.
This going to hunt up her shiftless husband at the inn was one of her still extant enjoyments in the muck and muddle of rearing children. To discover him at that dingy place, to sit there for an hour or two by his side and dismiss all thoughts and dream of care of the yet-to-be-born children during the interval, made her happy. A sort of halo, an occidental glow, came over her life then. Troubles and other realities took on themselves metaphysical impalpability, sinking to mere mental phenomena for serene contemplation, no longer stood as pressing concretions which chafed body and soul. Otherwise; the incidents of daily life were not without humorousness and jollity in their aspect there. She felt a little as she had used to feel when she sat by her now wedded husband in the same spot during his wooing, shutting her eyes to his defects of character, and regarding him only in his ideal presentation as lover.
The newly-married young lady was in all the bloom and grace of early womanhood, shedding on her secluded path in life soft and gentle light, that fell on all who trod it with her, and shone into their hearts. She used to roam through the sultry fields at noon, and the low tones of her sweet voice in the moonlit night evening walk could be heard ; The tones of the clear laugh could be heard, and the sympathizing tears could be conjured up to glistened in the soft blue eye.
“During his grave illness, Charles sent for me again. I called him and he said : “Don’t drink all my scotch, I’ll be down there soon.”
“I wasn’t with him when he died,” she sighs and lights up a cigar, also offering me one .
Meanwhile, after Charles’ death, she has converted her flat into a shrine to him. Her walls are covered with his photos, she has even kept the last bottle of Black Label from his cellar.
“This is his place and mine,” Persis says defiantly.
“Finally we have a place of our own.”
Well, a little more, or a little less, it was a thousand pities that it should have happened to her, of all others. But it is always the comeliest ! The plain ones be as safe as churches ....
It was a thousand pities, indeed; it was impossible for even an enemy to feel otherwise on looking at Persis as she sat there, with her flower-like mouth and large tender eyes, neither black nor blue nor grey or violet ; rather all those shades together, and a hundred others which could be seen if one looked into their irises – shade behind shade – tint beyond tint – around pupils that had no bottom; an almost standard woman, but for the slight incautiousness of character inherited from her race.
A resolution which had surprised herself had brought her into the open this week for the first time during many months . After wearing and wasting her palpitating heart with every engine or regret that lonely inexperience could devise, commonsense had illumined her . She felt that she would do well to be useful again, to taste anew sweet independence at any price. The past was past; whatever it had been it was no more at hand; Whatever its consequences, time would all in a few years be as if they had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten. Meanwhile the trees were just as green as before ; the birds sang and the sun shone as clearly now as ever. The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain.
She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly – the thought of the world's concern at her situation – was founded on an illusion. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself .
To all humankind besides Persis was only a passing thought. Even to friends she was no more than a frequently passing thought. If she made herself miserable the livelong night and day it was only this much to them – " Oh, she makes herself unhappy.' If she tried to be cheerful, to dismiss all care, to take pleasure in the daylight, the flowers, the baby, she could only be this idea to them – 'Oh ho, she bears it very well.' Moreover, alone in a desert island would she have been wretched at what happened to her? Not greatly.
St. Jerome said : "If an offence come out of the truth, better is it that the offence come than that the truth be concealed. "
If she could have been but just created, to discover herself as a spouseless mother as her husband had already left her, with no experience of life except as the parent of a nameless child, would the position have caused her to despair? No, she would have taken it calmly, and found pleasures therein. Most of the misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations.
Whatever Persis' reasoning, some spirit had induced her to dress herself up neatly as she had formerly done, and come out on the street. She had borne herself with dignity at last, and had looked people calmly in the face at times, even when holding the baby in her arms.
Persis' female companions sang songs, and showed themselves very sympathetic and glad at her re-appearance out of doors, though they could not refrain from mischievously throwing in a few verses of the ballad about the maid who went to the merry green wood and came back a changed state. There are counterpoise and compensations in life; and the event which had made of her a social warning had also for the moment made her the most interesting personage in the loyalty to many. Their friendliness won her still farther away from herself, their lively spirits were contagious, and she became almost gay.
The clock struck the solemn hour of one.
Her figure looked singularly tall and imposing as she stood in her long white nightgown, a thick cable of twisted dark hair hanging straight down her back to her waist. The kindly dimness of the weak candle abstracted from her form and features the little blemishes which sunlight might have revealed – the stubble scratches upon her wrists, and the weariness of her eyes – her high enthusiasm having a transfiguring effect upon the face which had been her undoing, showing it as a thing of immaculate beauty, with a touch of dignity which was almost regal. She did not allow her physical heaviness at that hour to become active.
She would often clasp her hands behind her head and muse when she was supposed to be working and thinking hard .
Her experience was of this incapacitating kind. At last she had learned what to do; but who would now accept her doing?
She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year; the disastrous night of her undoing with its dark background; also her own birthday and every other day individualized by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought one evening, when looking in the glass at her fairness, that there was yet another date, of greater importance to her than those; that of her own death, when all these charms would have disappeared; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year; giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there.
Almost at a leap Persis thus changed from a simple girl to a complex woman . Symbols of reflection passed into her face. She became what would have been called a fine creature; her soul that of a woman whom the turbulent experiences of the last year or two had quite failed to demoralize.
So, it became evident to her that she could never be really comfortable again in a place which had seen the collapse of her dream . At least she could not be comfortable there till long years should have obliterated her keen consciousness of it.
The recuperative power which pervaded organic nature was surely not denied to maidenhood alone. It was un-expended youth, surging up anew after its temporary check, and bringing with it hope, and the invincible instinct towards self-delight.
Now she has to go far from her place. it was not quite so far off as could have been wished; but it was probably far enough, her radius of emotional movement and repute having been so small. To persons of limited spheres, miles are as geographical degrees, parishes as counties, counties as provinces and so on ...
Rudyard Kipling says : "I always prefer to believe the best of everybody; it saves so much trouble. "
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