His family wanted him to live in the country and cultivate grapes as the rest of them had for twenty generations, but Casimir de Châteauneuf had finer needs.
Casimir was a dreamer. He wanted to find his destiny before his destiny could find him.
The year was 1868. Europe was in a frenzy, seeking its spiritual opposite in the recesses of the Maghreb and the Levant. An obsession for Orientalism permeated everything, from pulp fiction and fashion to the grand canvases of Delacroix.
But what intrigued everyone the most was that, after years of toil, the waters of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean were about to merge in the Suez, a symbolic union of the East and the West, a union promising faster trade and immense fecundity.
Casimir de Châteauneuf was thirty-five.
He had already succeeded in turning grapes into gold.
Casimir’s childhood was monotonously vast vineyards. His adolescence, dark cellars. The estate was called Grange du Souvenir. The town was called Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
His wife was called Esperance. And his children were named Andre, Antoine, and Alphonse.
Casimir knew every street, every house, every person in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He had pursued all the vices that prevailed in the provinces.
“I’m bored — bored to death. Bored as never before,” he confided to a friend.
He set off for Paris to market the wine and to explore the city’s unique perversions.
His great talent for assimilation and his country gentleman’s social ease quickly gained him entrance to the best men’s clubs and women’s salons. With dismissive panache, he grasped the nuances of couture. Refining his accent in no time, he cultivated his eloquence.
He kept a mistress, an alluring courtesan, who lived above the arcades at the Palais Royal. What distinguished her was an abundant red mane and small, voluptuous lips. (In fact, important men whispered to each other about her “other” small, voluptuous lips which compensated sweetly for their own deficiencies.)
Casimir could see the turrets of the Louvre out of her bedroom window. He could measure the pulse of commerce parading through rue de Rivoli. He could spend hours at the Bibliothèque Nationale, engrossed in unusual books and journals, in pursuit of things that had occurred during his boyhood in the country. He could gush through the volumes written, the continents explored, the machines invented.
Casimir celebrated follies of luxury and every new expression of the arts. In the evenings, the theater and the opera. Three times a week, fencing and pistols at the Cartoucherie. On Tuesdays, Bezique with foreign businessmen at the Faubourg Saint-Honore.
Every Tuesday afternoon at four, a retinue of street people bared their palms outside the club. Among them, he distributed the day’s revenue.
On that fated day, Casimir de Châteauneuf was returning to his mistress’s after a Bezique game. He found himself wedged among spectators on rue de Rivoli, watching a cortege of fancy carriages enter the courtyard of the Tuileries Palace. From these carriages descended gentlemen in knee breeches and silk stockings. They held out their arms to the ladies, ladies dressed in billowing crinolines, breasts almost bare except where concealed beneath jewelry and furs. They strolled under a marquee into the Pavilion de l’Horloge, where Swiss Guards with plumed helmets stood to attention. Then they disappeared out of sight.
For Casimir de Châteauneuf, the spectacle was a scene straight from grand theater, where a solid yet translucent curtain separated the performers from the audience. It gave him an odd feeling as if separate realities were merging, a sense that had the quality of a premonition.
He wondered if he was meant to cross the line.
He stopped at 220 rue de Rivoli at A. Webb’s, the famous wine and brandy dealer. Over cigars and special reserve Châteauneuf-du-Pape —Casimir’s gift — he and Webb negotiated an arrangement advantageous to both.
How effortless things had become. A good smoke, a glass of wine. He walked out of A. Webb’s smiling, filled with a sense of overflowing gratitude for the miracle of existence.
It was autumn. Gold and copper leaves through the park were almost knee deep. Like grapes at harvest but feathery light.
Casimir de Châteauneuf felt himself the happiest man in the world as he wandered idly through a maze of streets and corners, courtyards and shortcuts in this city of false perspectives and perfect symmetry.
He circled the Place Vendome, walked fast down rue Saint Honore, past the Comedie Francaise, then took a final shortcut at the Montpensier gallery, cutting through the dark alley to the gardens where little children played ring-around-the-rosy.
Under the hollow arcades of the Palais Royal, golden light filtered through the arches. He stopped to get some snuff, circled the square, pausing to gaze at the windows of medal shops, and to buy antique tin soldiers for Andre, Antoine, and Alphonse. And a satin bustier with silk rosettes for Esperance — the kind in vogue among Parisian women that season, the kind that lifted their busts nearly up to their necks — certain that her modesty would never allow her to indulge. Even in private.
He was distracted by a shop window with no display except a black velvet curtain on which was painted one word: Orientalia.
It had such an erotic ring to it that Casimir was disturbed by a fluttering of his heart. After rolling the word Orientalia round his mouth as if it were a piece of freshly plucked fig, he entered the shop.
A somber space, strongly pungent smell of untanned leather mingled inside with attar of roses. It was cluttered with typical bric-a-brac from the Orient — the hookah, the turban, the dagger, the tambourine — but selected with a keen eye.
In a smaller annex was a collection of fine miniature portraits, oil replicas of actual people’s faces, with the most intricate detail. Despite their small size, the lingering expression etched on each face hinted at stories that longed to be told.
But of all the portraits, the face of a young woman hypnotized him. No matter from which angle Casimir viewed the portrait, her eyes remained locked with his as if following the movement of his eyes. He experienced a peculiar sensation as though the painting were alive.
She was dressed in a green caftan with flowing sleeves, embroidered with golden tulips. It was difficult to guess the color of her hair, as it was concealed under a jeweled turban, but her skin was like ivory.
Her eyes: one blue, the other yellow.
The face was terrifyingly familiar yet his memory could not place it anywhere. The edge of the gilded frame was inscribed with the words La Poupée. The doll.
“Who is she?” he asked.
The owner of the shop did not know. A painter who had traveled to the Orient, a very short young man who called himself Nomad, had sold it to him.
“Where can I find him?” asked Casimir de Châteauneuf. After all, the Orient was vast, encompassing all the lands of Islam along the Mediterranean.
The man shrugged his shoulders. “He’s a painter. Here today, gone tomorrow. I have no way of knowing, but you may want to pursue the vendors in Montmartre.”
Casimir de Châteauneuf bought the miniature for a price. In its green velvet case embroidered with golden tulips, it seemed to contain an invisible life infused with destiny.
That night the woman of the miniature entered Casimir de Châteauneuf’s dream.
He was wandering in a city of domes and slim minarets where everyone spoke an incomprehensible language. Murmurs spread like locusts through a labyrinth of alleys. She was sitting alone in a courtyard, sobbing, her tears filling an empty fountain. Exotic fruit trees, flowers, and birds surrounded her but she seemed to be in some sort of prison. Her accent was flavored, cinnamony, like that of a slave girl but her countenance radiated the elegance of a princess. Je vous aime. Je vous aime. The words escaped her lips like smoke rings, floating far into the dream void. He had heard her voice before in his dreams. Their eyes met. He was seized by an intense longing to be near her. He reached out to touch her.
With a start, he sat up in bed, staring at the moonlit wall. Furtive footsteps puttered on the roof. A screech. Only a yawling cat in heat, but the image of the girl was irretrievable, when his consciousness congealed.
All night long, unable to return to the dream, Casimir made love to his mistress, with a lightness that exhaled from his whole being, not only the lower and narrow part of his body. He sensed for the first time that it was neither the intensity of the carnal urge nor the familiar repertoire of undulations that love was made of, but the surrender to the ebb and flow of the lovers’ communal breath. Together, they abandoned their bodies and rode an invisible magic carpet through the clouds above the pollarded trees of the Palais Royal (as in the painting of “The Dream” by Puvis de Chavannes, she would describe years later). The rising sun tinted their vulnerable forms. The sky was a splash of saffron red. The trees, all clipped into the same shape, extending infinitely like a paisley sea of leaves.
Casimir left his mistress on her bed, undone, infused with a sacred glow she had not previously known. She craved to hold on to it and to the man who could accompany her through those rapturous swells.
His sudden abandonment, she would never forgive.
With superhuman intensity, Casimir climbed all the way up to Montmartre, the hotbed of artistic ferment. He asked for a painter who had journeyed to the East.
“But there are so many of them these days, Monsieur. It’s the fashion. How else can a young man escape from this bourgeois morality, this prosaic realism of the metropolis? How else can he free himself from the sexual repression of this Christian monogamy?”
“You may want to try Monsieur Gerome’s studio down near Saint Georges,” another suggested.
Casimir cleaved his way through a street demonstration of communards, to the studio of the most famous Orientalist painter. Inside, the carpenters were building a roof terrace replete with fountains and palm trees. A group of art students were gathered around a model, arranging her in the pose of a reclining odalisque. She was dressed in a caftan embroidered with tulips, similar to the one the girl in the miniature wore. It was as if he had entered a scene from One Thousand and One Nights.
He asked where the robe had come from. No one knew.
He begged the model to sell him the caftan, even proceeding to disrobe her. Although he was aware of the ridiculousness of his actions, he could not bring himself to care.
The model wept.
The students threw him out on the street.
Along the picturesque yet insalubrious quarters of narrow and crooked roads, he asked each vendor, each landlord about a painter named Nomad. No one seemed to know until a blind ragpicker with a crushed top hat reached for Casimir and said, “Oh, him, the dwarf. He’s gone back to the Orient.”
Later that day, Casimir de Chateauneuf set off for “the Orient.”
The Orient was where the sun rose.
Casimir de Châteauneuf began the long journey from Paris to Marseilles, France’s gateway to the Orient. First, he took the stagecoach, then the steamer from Chalon to Lyons, catching the Rhone boat as far as Valence, where a ghostly thick fog delayed them. Then the post chaise to Avignon as he had always done on his return from Paris to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
But this time he did not stop at Grange du Souvenir to see his family. His thoughts, driven only by the single-mindedness of a greater desire, did not even include them. They would be content to receive his gifts. They would not even know of his departure. They would eventually forget him.
From Avignon, he rode the train to Marseilles, where he boarded La Sirene, a steam packet of two hundred horsepowers, which ambled like a drunkard.
Casimir stood for a long time, draped in his pelisse like Childe Harold, leaning against the rail and gazing at the coast of Provence as it gradually vanished into the fog, utterly lost in the reverie of the young woman in the miniature with one blue eye, and the other yellow.
After twelve days of wild winds and heavy waves, of rolling and pitching, Casimir de Châteauneuf, perched up in the bow, spyglass in hand, sighted the Egyptian shores. His first impression of the Orient was of a shimmering light that bounced like quicksilver on the water.
He disembarked La Sirene in Alexandria, eyes wide open, gulping down a bellyful of bright colors. Never had he seen such a menagerie of deliciously villainous faces that grinned, glowered, and suggested every peculiarity.
Among this everlasting succession of ruffians, he searched for a painter named Nomad, clawing his way through a long range of bazaars, swarms of flies, and yelping dogs, through half-naked, sore-eyed Arabs who held the dread of the plague.
Yet he had no luck.
He left for Cairo, where he boarded an English boat, gliding the Nile upstream toward Thebes. Fresh eggs for breakfast and plum pudding at Christmas. In the mornings, he shot crocodiles and in the afternoons, he took tea.
As they descended the second cataract, he recalled Flaubert’s exclamation while he slid down the same: “I’ve got it! Eureka! Her name is Emma Bovary.”
He, too, wished for a revelation. His eyes followed the North Star.
He rode a camel over a mighty sepulchre of a ruined city where at every turn a telltale monument stared at him from its grave. A shattered visage, broken columns, crumbling walls, fragments of granite and marble thrust themselves out of loose earth, as if struggling for resurrection.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
He rode on burning sands under a burning sun. To one side of him was a yawning chasm, in which hundreds of seminaked Arabs toiled to disentomb the stone body of a pharaoh long buried in the sand. On the other side, another group unveiled a temple as entire as the ancient Egyptians had left it.
At a higher altitude, Casimir was stranded in a flash flood. He witnessed a bubbling yellow torrent rushing down the valley of the riverbed, sweeping along with it a mass of broken statues, trees, and branches. He saw the water swirl and swell around a wooden shack, a river of rapids and whirlpools carrying it off with great force.
Suddenly, a noise like thunder struck and the shack collapsed into the water, sweeping away a screaming man.
When Casimir had the body dug out of the mud, the man was still clutching some paintings but the images had washed off in the muddy waters of the flood. Casimir tried desperately to revive him but no life was left.