The carpenter's house was as busy as a beehive. The ladies, in dressing—jackets and petticoats, with their hanging down, thin, short hair, which looked as if it were faded and worn by use, were busy dressing the child, who was standing motionless on a table, while Madame Tellier was directing the movements of her battalion. They washed her, did her hair, dressed her, and with the help of a number of pins, they arranged the folds of her dress, and took in the waist, which was too large.
Then, when she was ready, she was told to sit down and not to move, and the women hurried off to get ready themselves.
The church bell began to ring again, and its tinkle was lost in the air, like a feeble voice which is soon drowned in space. The candidates came out of the houses, and went towards the parochial building which contained the two—school and the mansion house—and which stood quite at one end of the village, while the church was situated at the other.
The parents, in their very best clothes, followed their children, with awkward looks, and those clumsy movements of the body, which is always bent at work.
The little girls disappeared in a cloud of muslin, which looked like whipped cream, while the lads, who looked like embryo waiters in a cafe, and whose heads shone with pomatum, walked with their legs apart, so as not to get any dust or dirt onto their black trousers.
It was something for the family to be proud of, when a large number of relations, who had come from a distance, surrounded the child, and, consequently, the carpenter's triumph was complete.
Madame Tellier's regiment, with its mistress at its head, followed Constance; her father gave his arm to his sister, her mother walked by the side of Raphaele, Fernande, with Rosa and the two pumps together, and thus they walked majestically through the village, like a general's staff in full uniform, while the effect on the village was startling.
At the school, the girls arranged themselves under the Sister of Mercy, and the boys under the schoolmaster, and they started off, singing a hymn as they went. The boys led the way, in two files, between the two rows of vehicles, from which the horses had been taken out, and the girls followed in the same order; and as all the people in the village had given the town ladies the precedence out of politeness, they came immediately behind the girls, and lengthened the double line of the procession still more, three on the right and three on the left, while their dresses were as striking as a bouquet in fireworks.
When they went into the church, the congregation grew quite excited. They pressed against each other, they turned round, they jostled one another in order to see, and some of the devout ones spoke almost aloud, as they were so astonished at the sight of those ladies whose dresses were more trimmed than the priest's chasuble.
The Mayor offered them his pew, the first one on the right, close to the choir, and Madame Tellier sat there with her sister-in-law, Fernande and Raphaele, Rosa the Jade, and the two pumps occupied the second seat, in company with the carpenter.
The choir was full of kneeling children, the girls on one side, and the boys on the other, and the long wax tapers which they held looked like lances, pointing in all directions, and three men were standing in front of the lectern, singing as loud as they could.
They prolonged the syllables of the sonorous Latin indefinitely, holding onto Amens with interminable a—a's, while the serpent of the organ kept up its monotorious, long drawn out notes, which that longthroated, copper instrument uttered.
A child's shrill voice took up the reply, and from time to time a priest sitting in a stall and wearing a biretta, got up, muttered something, and sat down again, while the three singers continued, with their eyes fixed on the big book of plain song lying open before them on the outstretched wings of an eagle, mounted on a pivot.
Then silence ensued, and so the service went on, and towards the end of it, Rosa, with her head in both her hands, suddenly thought of her mother and her village church on a similar occasion. She almost fancied that that day had returned, when she was so small, and almost hidden in her white dress, and she began to cry.
First of all, she wept silently, and the tears dropped slowly from her eyes, but her emotion increased with her recollections, and she began to sob. She took out her pocket-handkerchief, wiped her eyes, and held it to her mouth, so as not to scream, but it was useless.
A sort of rattle escaped her throat, and she was answered by two other profound, heart-breaking sobs; for her two neighbors, Louise and Flora, who were kneeling near her, overcome by similar recollections, were sobbing by her side, amidst a flood of tears, and as they are contagious, Madame soon in turn found that her eyes were wet, and on turning to her sister-in-law, she saw that all the occupants of her seat were also crying.
Soon, throughout the church, here and there, a wife, a mother, a sister, seized by the strange sympathy of poignant emotion, and agitated by those handsome ladies on their knees, who were shaken by their sobs, was moistening her cambric pocket-handkerchief, and pressing her beating heart with her left hand.
Just as the sparks from an engine will set fire to dry grass, so the tears of Rosa and of her companions infected the whole congregation in a moment. Men, women, old men, and lads in new blouses were soon all sobbing, and something superhuman seemed to be hovering over their heads; a spirit, the powerful breath of an invisible and all-powerful being.
Suddenly a species of madness seemed to pervade the church, the noise of a crowd in a state of frenzy, a tempest of sobs and stifled cries. It passed through them like gusts of wind which bow the trees in a forest, and the priest, paralyzed by emotion, stammered out incoherent prayers, without finding words, prayers of the soul, when it soars towards heaven.
The people behind him, gradually grew calmer. The cantors, in all the dignity of their white surplices, went on in somewhat uncertain voices, and the serpent itself seemed hoarse, as if the instrument had been weeping; the priest, however, raised his hand, as a sign for them to be still, and went and stood on the chancel steps, when everybody was silent, immediately.
After a few remarks on what had just taken place, which he attributed to a miracle, he continued, turning to the seats where the carpenter's guests were sitting:
"I especially thank you, my dear sisters, who have come from such a distance, and whose presence among us, whose evident faith and ardent piety have set such a salutary example to all. You have edified my parish; your emotion has warmed all hearts; without you, this great day would not, perhaps, have had this really divine character. It is sufficient, at times, that there should be one chosen to keep in the flock, to make the whole flock blessed."
His voice failed him again, from emotion, and he said no more, but concluded the service.
Then they all left the church as quickly as possible, and the children themselves were restless, as they were tired with such a prolonged tension of the mind. Besides that, they were hungry, and by degrees they all left the churchyard, to see about dinner.
There was a crowd outside, a noisy crowd, a babel of loud voices, where the shrill Norman accent was discernible. The villagers formed two ranks, and when the children appeared, each family seized its own.
The whole houseful of women caught hold of Constance, surrounded her and kissed her, and Rosa was especially demonstrative. At last she took hold of one hand, while Madame Tellier held the other, and Raphaele and Fernande held up her long muslin petticoat, so that it might not drag in the dust; Louise and Flora brought up the rear with Madame Rivet, and the child, who was very silent and thoughtful, set off home, in the midst of this guard of honor.
The dinner was served in the workshop, on long boards supported by trestles, and through the open door they could see all the enjoyment that was going on. Everywhere they were feasting, and through every window were to be seen tables surrounded by people in their Sunday best, and a cheerful noise was heard in every house, while the men were sitting in their shirt-sleeves, drinking cider, glass after glass.
In the carpenter's house, their gaiety maintained somewhat of an air of reserve, which was the consequence of the emotion of the girls in the morning, and Rivet was the only one who was in a good cue, and he was drinking to excess. Madame Tellier was looking at the clock every moment, for, in order not to lose two days following, they ought to take the 3:55 train, which would bring them to Fecamp by dark.
The carpenter tried very hard to distract her attention, so as to keep his guests until the next day, but he did not succeed, for she never joked when there was business to be done, and as soon as they had had their coffee she ordered her girls to make haste and get ready, and then, turning to her brother, she said:
"You must have the horse put in immediately," and she herself went to finish her last preparations.
When she came down again, her sister-in-law was waiting to speak to her about the child, and a long conversation took place, in which, however, nothing was settled. The carpenter's wife finished, and pretended to be very much moved, and Madame Tellier, who was holding the girl on her knees, would not pledge herself to anything definite, but merely gave vague promises ... she would not forget her, there was plenty of time, and then, they should meet again.
But the conveyance did not come to the door, and the women did not come downstairs. Upstairs, they even heard loud laughter, falls, little screams, and much clapping of hands, and so, while the carpenter's wife went to the stable to see whether the cart was ready, Madame went upstairs.
Rivet, who was very drunk, and half undressed, was vainly trying to violate Rosa, who was half choking with laughter. The two pumps were holding him by the arms and trying to calm him, as they were shocked at such a scene after that morning's ceremony; but Raphaele and Fernande were urging him on, writhing and holding their sides with laughter, and they uttered shrill cries at every useless attempt that the drunken fellow made.
The man was furious, his face was red, he was all unbuttoned, and he was trying to shake off the two women who were clinging to him, while he was pulling Rosa's petticoat with all his might.
But Madame, who was very indignant, went up to her brother, seized him by the shoulders, and threw him out of the room with such violence that he fell against a wall in the passage, and a minute afterwards they heard him pumping water onto his head in the yard, and when he came back with the cart, he was already quite appeased.
They started off in the same way as they had come the day before, and the little white horse started off with his quick, dancing trot. Under the hot sun, their fun, which had been checked during dinner, broke out again. The girls now were amused at the jolts which the wagon gave, pushed their neighbors' chairs, and burst out laughing every moment, for they were in the vein for it, after Rivet's vain attempt.
There was a haze over the country, the roads were glaring, and dazzled their eyes, and the wheels raised up two trails of dust, which followed the cart for a long time along the high road, and presently Fernande, who was fond of music, asked Rosa to sing something, and she boldly struck up the Gros Cure de Meudon, but Madame made her stop immediately, as she thought it a song which was very unsuitable for such a day, and she added:
"Sing us something of Beranger's." And so, after a moment's hesitation, she began Beranger's song, The Grandmother, in her worn-out voice, and all the girls, and even Madame herself, joined in the chorus:
"How I regret My dimpled arms, My well-made legs, And my vanished charms."
"That is first rate," Rivet declared, carried away by the rhythm, and they shouted the refrain to every verse, while Rivet beat time on the shafts with his foot, and on the horse's back with the reins, who, as if he himself were carried away by the rhythm, broke into a wild gallop, and threw all the women in a heap, one on the top of the other, onto the bottom of the conveyance.
They got up, laughing as if they were mad, and the song went on, shouted at the top of their voices, beneath the burning sky, among the ripening grain, to the rapid gallop of the little horse, who set off every time the refrain was sung, and galloped a hundred yards, to their great delight, while occasionally a stone breaker by the roadside sat up and looked at the wild and shouting female load through his wire spectacles.
When they got out at the station, the carpenter said:
"I am sorry you are going; we might have had some fun together." But Madame replied very sensibly: "Everything has its right time, and we cannot always be enjoying ourselves." And then he had a sudden inspiration:
"Look here, I will come and see you at Fecamp next month." And he gave a knowing look, with a bright and roguish eye.
"Come," Madame said, "you must be sensible; you may come if you like, but you are not to be up to any of your tricks."
He did not reply, and as they heard the whistle of the train, he immediately began to kiss them all. When it came to Rosa's turn, he tried to get to her mouth, which she, however, smiling with her lips closed, turned away from him each time by a rapid movement of her head to one side. He held her in his arms, but he could not attain his object, as his large whip, which he was holding in his hand and waving behind the girl's back in desperation, interfered with his efforts.
"Passengers for Rouen, take your seats, please!" a guard cried, and they got in. There was a slight whistle, followed by a loud whistle, from the engine, which noisily puffed out its first jet of steam, while the wheels began to turn a little, with a visible effort, and Rivet left the station and went to the gate by the side of the line to get another look at Rosa, and as the carriage full of human merchandise passed him, he began to crack his whip and to jump, while he sang at the top of his voice:
"How I regret My dimpled arms, My well-made legs, And my vanished charms."
And then he watched a white pocket-handkerchief, which somebody was waving, as it disappeared in the distance.
They slept the peaceful sleep of a quiet conscience, until they got to Rouen, and when they returned to the house, refreshed and rested, Madame could not help saying:
"It was all very well, but I was already longing to get home."
They hurried over their supper, and then, when they had put on their usual light evening costume, waited for their usual customers, and the little colored lamp outside the door told the passers-by that the flock had returned to the fold, and in a moment the news spread, nobody knew how or by whom.
Monsieur Philippe, the banker's son, even carried his forgetfulness so far, as to send a special messenger to Monsieur Tournevau, who was in the boson of his family.
The fish-curer used every Sunday to have several cousins to dinner, and they were having coffee, when a man came in with a letter in his hand. Monsieur Tournevau was much excited, he opened the envelope and grew pale; it only contained these words in pencil:
"The cargo of cod has been found; the ship has come into port; good business for you. Come immediately."
He felt in his pockets, gave the messenger two-pence, and suddenly blushing to his ears, he said: "I must go out." He handed his wife the laconic and mysterious note, rang the bell, and when the servant came in, he asked her to bring him his hat and overcoat immediately. As soon as he was in the street, he began to run, and the way seemed to him to be twice as long as usual, in consequence of his impatience.
Madame Tellier's establishment had put on quite a holiday look. On the ground floor, a number of sailors were making a deafening noise, and Louise and Flora drank with one and the other, so as to merit their name of the two Pumps more than ever. They were being called for everywhere at once; already they were not quite adequate to their business, and the night bid fair to be a very jolly one for them.
The upstairs room was full by nine o'clock. Monsieur Vasse, the Judge of the Tribunal of Commerce, Madame's usual, but Platonic wooer, was talking to her in a corner, in a low voice, and they were both smiling, as if they were about to come to an understanding.
Monsieur Poulin, the ex-mayor, was holding Rosa on his knees; and she, with her nose close to his, was running her hands through the old gentleman's white whiskers.
Tall Fernande, who was lying on the sofa, had both her feet on Monsieur Pinipesse, the tax-collector's stomach, and her back on young Monsieur Philippe's waistcoat; her right arm was round his neck, while she held a cigarette in her left.
Raphaele appeared to be discussing matters with Monsieur Dupuis, the insurance agent, and she finished by saying: "Yes, my dear, I will."
Just then, the door opened suddenly, and Monsieur Tournevau came in, who was greeted with enthusiastic cries of: "Long live Tournevau!" And Raphaele, who was still twirling round, went and threw herself into his arms. He seized her in a vigorous embrace, and without saying a word, lifting her up as if she had been a feather, he went through the room, opened the door at the other end and disappeared.
Rosa was chatting to the ex-mayor, kissing him every moment, and pulling both his whiskers at the same time in order to keep his head straight.
Fernande and Madame remained with the four men, and Monsieur Philippe exclaimed: "I will pay for some champagne; get three bottles, Madame Tellier." And Fernande gave him a hug, and whispered to him: "Play us a waltz, will you?" So he rose and sat down at the old piano in the corner, and managed to get a hoarse waltz out of the entrails of the instrument.
The tall girl put her arms round the tax-collector, Madame asked Monsieur Vasse to take her in his arms, and the two couples turned round, kissing as they danced. Monsieur Vasse, who had formerly danced in good society, waltzed with such elegance, that Madame was quite captivated.
Frederic brought the champagne; the first cork popped, and Monsieur Philippe played the introduction to a quadrille, through which the four dancers walked in society fashion, decorously, with propriety, deportment, bows and curtsies, and then they began to drink.
Monsieur Philippe next struck up a lively polka, and Monsieur Tournevau started off with the handsome Jewess, whom he held up in the air, without letting her feet touch the ground. Monsieur Pinipesse and Monsieur Vasse had started off with renewed vigor, and from time to time one or other couple would stop to toss off a long glass of sparkling wine, and that dance was threatening to become never-ending, when Rosa opened the door.
"I want to dance," she exclaimed. And she caught hold of Monsieur Dupuis, who was sitting idle on the couch, and the dance began again.
But the bottles were empty. "I will pay for one," Monsieur said. "So will I," Monsieur Vasse declared. "And I will do the same," Monsieur Dupuis remarked.
They all began to clap their hands, and it soon became a regular ball, and from time to time, Louise and Flora ran upstairs quickly, had a few turns, while their customers downstairs grew impatient, and then they returned regretfully to the cafe. At midnight they were still dancing.
Madame shut her eyes to what was going on and she had long private talks in corners with Monsieur Vasse, as if to settle the last details of something that had already been settled.
At last, at one o'clock, the two married men, Monsieur Tournevau and Monsieur Pinipesse declared that they were going home, and wanted to pay. Nothing was charged for except the champagne, and that only cost six francs a bottle, instead of ten, which was the usual price, and when they expressed their surprise at such generosity, Madame, who was beaming, said to them:
"We don't have a holiday every day."
THE BANDMASTER'S SISTER
"What a joke!" the bandmaster said, twirling his moustache with the foolish smile of a good-looking man, who dangles after women's petticoats, in order that he may get on all the quicker.
His comrades' equivocal allusions puzzled him, though they flattered him like applause, and he stealthily looked in the large mirrors at the new lyres embroidered in gold on the collar of his tunic. They fascinated him by their glitter, and half intoxicated by the doubtful champagne that he had drunk during dinner, and by the glasses of chartreuse and of Bavarian beer which he had imbibed afterwards, and excited by the songs, he was indulging in his usual dreams of success.
He saw himself on the platform of a public garden, standing before his musicians in a flood of light, and he fancied already that he could hear the whispers of women, and feel the caress of their look upon him.
He would be invited even into the drawing-rooms of the Faubourg Saint Germain, which was so difficult of access. With his handsome, pale face, and his wonderful manner of playing Chopin's music, he would penetrate every where, and perhaps some romantic heiress would fall in love with him, and consent to forget that he was only a poor musician, the son of small shopkeepers, who were still in trade at Bayeux.
Lieutenant Varache, who was stirring the punch, shrugged his shoulders, and continued in a bantering voice:
"Yes, Monsieur Parisel, they are sure to ask you whether you have just joined the regiment, or whether you have a mistress ..."
"What do I know?"
"But they say that you have, and that her eyes grow so bright when she speaks to you, that a man would forfeit three months' pay for a glance of them, by Jove!"
Another traced her likeness in a few words, and described her as if she had been some knick-knack for sale at an auction. Her hair came low on her forehead like a golden net, her skin was dazzlingly white, while her bright eyes threw out glances that were like those flashes of summer lightning which dart across the sky on a calm night in June.
Her delicate figure, and she did not look very strong, recalled a plant that has grown too rapidly. She was a droll creature, on the whole, who at times looked as if she had made a mistake in the door, who buried herself in the shade, hid herself, and did not surrender either her heart or her body, and only left the impression of a statue on the bed in which she slept, who appeared delighted with the ignoble business she carried on, and who allured men, and surpassed the common streetwalkers in shamelessness.
Parisel, however, was not listening to them any longer.
He was terribly vexed at meeting with such a common-place adventure at the first start, and to come across that girl on his road, who would make him loose, and soil him with unclean love. She would lower him, and bring him down to the level of rollicking troopers, who are welcome guests in houses of bad character.
"Well," one of them said suddenly, "suppose we go and finish the night at that establishment; it will be far jollier, and the chief will not be obliged to cudgel his brains to remember the name of the girl he loves!"
* * * * *
The officers pushed open the door of the saloon, where a servant was lighting the chandelier, and Marchessy called out in a loud voice, and amidst bursts of laughter:
"Here, Lucie! We have brought your sweetheart to you!"
She came in first, slowly, and wrapped in a transparent muslin dressing-gown, and stopped, as if the beating of her heart were choking her. The bandmaster did not move or say a word; he resembled a duellist, who sees his adversary advancing towards him and taking aim at him, and who is waiting for death.
Great drops of perspiration rolled down his face, and all the blood had left it, while the woman looked at him, and did not appear to recognize him, although her eyes wore a look of triumphant pleasure, and when he started back, and turned his head away, she said to him, in a mocking voice:
"What, my dear, are you not going to kiss me, after a whole year? ... I must have altered very much, very much indeed ... Do not my mouth, and this mark by the side of my ear, bring something to your mind?"
And Varache, who had just lit a cigar, muttered: "Are you going to act a play until to-morrow?"
Then Lucie threw herself on to a sofa, and with her chin in her hands, and in the posture of a chimera on the look out for the pleasures she wishes, continued gravely:
"We lived at the end of a quiet street behind the cathedral, a street in which pots of carnations stood on the window ledges, through which the seminarists went twice a day, as if it had been a procession, and where I was bored to death. Our parents' shop was cold and dark; my mother thought of nothing but of going to all the services, and of attending the novenas, while my father bent over the counter. There was nobody to pet me, to advise me, or to teach me what life really was, and besides that, I had the instinctive feeling that they cared for nobody in this world but my brother.
"The first kiss that touched my lips nearly sent me mad, and I had not the force to resist or to say no. I did not even ask the man who seduced me to marry me, to promise me what men do promise girls. We met in a booth at the fair, and I used to go to meet him every evening in a meadow bordered by poplar trees. He had a situation as clerk or collector, I believe, and when he was sent to another town, I was already three months in the family way. My people soon found it out, and forced me to acknowledge everything, and they locked me up like a prisoner who wished to escape from jail.
"My brother was home for his holidays—do you remember now, Monsieur Parisel? He had just been appointed second head clerk, was reckoning on still further speedy advancement, and was bursting with pride. He was harder and more inexorable than the two old people towards me, poor forsaken girl as I was, although they had never left their home. He spoke about his future, which would be compromised, of the disgrace which would fall on all the family, went into a rage, arid pitied neither my tears nor my prayers, and treated me with the cruelty of a hangman.
"And they sent me a long way off, like a servant who has committed a theft, and condemned me to be confined at a farm in a village, where the peasants treated me harshly. The child died, but the mother lived through everything.
"One does not have good luck very frequently, confound it, and the only thing that I could do was to return evil, to strike at the coward whom I hated, to dishonor and to lower his name, to stick to the fellow who strutted about in his uniform, and who had won the game, from garrison to garrison, as if I had been vermin. That is why I, of my own accord, came to this house, where one belongs to everybody, and have become almost more vicious than any of the other girls, and why I have told you this unentertaining story.
"I say, you fellows, who will pay ten francs for the bandmaster's sister? Upon my honor, you will not regret your money!"
His comrades got Parisel out of the house. He resisted for a week, but then sold everything he had, borrowed the money to pay Lucie's debts, and tried in vain to free himself from that weight, and to get her expelled from the town, but she always returned. She was as implacable towards him as a gerfalcon that is devouring its prey, and as the adventure had got wind, and was even talked about at the soldiers' mess, and as the scandal increased every day, the colonel forced the bandmaster to resign.
When Lucie heard the news, she looked vexed, and, said spitefully:
"I had hoped that he would have blown his brains out!"
"I have a perfect horror of pianos," Fremecourt said, "of those hateful boxes that fill up a drawing-room, and which have not even the soft sound and the queer shape of the mahogany or veneered spinets, to which our grandmothers sighed out exquisite, long-forgotten ballads, and allowed their fingers to run over the keys, while around them there floated a delicate odor of powder and muslin, and some little Abbe or other turned over the leaves, and was continually making mistakes, as he was looking at the patches close to the lips on the white skin of the player instead of at the music.
"I wish there were a tax upon them, or that some evening, during a riot, the people would make huge bonfires of them, which would illuminate the whole town. They simply exasperate me, and affect my nerves, and make me think of the tortures those poor girls must suffer, who are condemned not to stir for hours, but to keep on constantly strumming away at the chromatic scales and monotonous arpeggios, and to have no other object in life except to win a prize at the Conservatoire.
"Their incoherent music suggests to me the sufferings of those who are ill, abandoned, wounded, as it proceeds from every floor of every house, and irritates you, nearly drives you mad, and makes you break out into ironical fits of laughter.
"And yet when that madcap Lalie Spring honored me with her love, as I never can refuse anything to a woman who smells of fresh scent, and who has a large store of promises in her looks, and who puts out her red, smiling lips immediately, as if she were going to offer you handsel money, I bought a piano, so that she might strum upon it to her heart's content. I got it, however, on the hire-purchase system, and paid so much a month, like grisettes do for their furniture.
[Footnote 9: Work-girl, a name applied to those whose virtue is not too rigorous.—TRANSLATOR.]
"At that time, I had the apartments I had so long dreamed of: warm, elegant, light, well-arranged, with two entrances, and an incomparable porter's wife; she had been canteen-keeper in a Zouave regiment, and knew everything and understood everything at a wink.
"It was the kind of apartment from which a woman has not the courage to escape, so as to avoid temptation, but becomes weak, and rolls herself up on the soft, eider down cushions like a cat, and so is appeased, and in spite of herself, thinks of sin at the sight of the low, wide couch, which is so suitable for caresses, of the heavy curtains, which quite deaden the sound of voices and of laughter, and of the flowers that scent the air, and whose smell lingers on the folds of the hangings.
"They were rooms in which a woman forgets time, where she begins by accepting a cup of tea and nibbling a sweet cake, and abandons her fingers timidly and with regret to other fingers which tremble, and are hot, and so by degrees she loses her head and succumbs.
"I do not know whether the piano brought us ill luck, but Lalie had not even time to learn four songs before she disappeared like the wind, just as she had come, flick-flack, good-night, good-bye; perhaps from spite, because she had found letters from other women on my table, perhaps to renew her advertisement, as she was not one of those to hang onto one man and become a fixture.
"I had not been in love with her, certainly, but yet it always has some effect on a man; it breaks a spring when a woman leaves you, and you think that you must start again, risk it, and go in for forbidden sport in which one is exposed to knocks, common sport that one has been through a hundred times before, and which provides you with nothing to show for it.
"Nothing is more unpleasant than to lend your apartments to a friend, to have to say to yourself that someone is going to disturb the mysterious intimacy which really exists between the actual owner and his furniture, the soul of those past kisses which floats in the air; that the room whose tints you connect with some recollection, some dream, some sweet vision, and whose colors you have tried to make harmonize with certain fair-haired, pink-skinned girls, is going to become a common-place lodging, like the rooms in an ordinary lodging house, which are suitable to hidden crime and to evanescent love affairs.
"However, poor Stanis had begged me so urgently to do him that service; he was so very much in love with Madame de Frejus, and among the characters in the play there was a brute of a husband who was terribly jealous and suspicious; one of those Othellos who have always a flea in their ear, and come back unexpectedly from shooting or the club, who pick up pieces of torn paper, listen at doors, smell out meetings with the nose of a detective, and seem to have been sent into the world only to be cuckolds, but who know better than most how to lay a snare, and to play a nasty trick—that when I went to Venice, I consented to let him have my room.
"I will leave you to guess whether they made up for lost time, although, after all, it is no business of yours. My journey, however, which was only to have lasted a few weeks—just long enough to benefit by the change of air, to rid my brain of the image of my last mistress, and perhaps to find another among that strange mixture of society which one meets there, a medley of American, Slav, Viennese and Italian women, who instill a little artificial life into that old city, which is asleep amidst the melancholy silence of the lagoons—was prolonged, and Stanis was as much at home in my rooms as he was in his own.
"Madame Piquignolles, the retired canteen-keeper, took great interest in this adventure, watched over their little love affair, and, as she used to say, she was on guard as soon as they arrived one after the other, the marchioness covered with a thick veil, and slipping in as quickly as possible, always uneasy, and afraid that Monsieur de Frejus might be following her, and Stanis with the assured and satisfied look of an amorous husband, who is going to meet his little wife after having been away from home for a few days.
"Well, one day during one of those calm moments when his beloved one, fresh from her bath, and impregnated with the coolness of the water, was pressing close to her lover, reclining in his arms, and smiling at him with half closed eyes, at one of those moments when people do not speak, but continue their dream, the sentinel, without even asking leave, suddenly burst into the room, for worthy Madame Piquignolles was in a terrible fright.
"A few minutes before, a well-dressed gentleman, followed by two others of seedy appearance, but who looked very strong, and fit to knock anybody down, had questioned her in a rough manner, and cross-questioned her, and tried to turn her inside out, as she said, asking her whether Monsieur de Frejus lived on the first floor, without giving her any explanation, and when she declared that there was nobody occupying the apartments then, as her lodger was not in France, Monsieur de Frejus—for it could certainly be nobody but he—had burst out into an evil laugh, and said: 'Very well; I shall go and fetch the Police Commissary of the district, and he will make you let us in!'
"And as quickly as possible, while she was telling her story, now in a low, and then in a shrill voice, the woman picked up the marchioness' dress, cloak, lace-edged drawers, silk petticoat, and little varnished shoes, pulled her out of bed, without giving her time to let her know what she was doing, or to moan, or to have a fit of hysterics, and carried her off, as if she had been a doll, with all her pretty toggery, to a large, empty cupboard in the dining room, that was concealed by Flemish tapestry. 'You are a man... Try to get out of the mess,' she said to Stanis as she shut the door; 'I will be answerable for Madame.' And the enormous woman, who was out of breath by hurrying upstairs as she had done, and whose kind, large red face was dripping with perspiration, while her ample bosom shook beneath her loose jacket, took Madame de Frejus onto her knees as if she had been a baby, whose nurse was trying to quiet her.
"She felt the poor little culprit's heart beating as if it were going to burst, while shivers ran over her skin, which was so soft and delicate that the porter's wife was afraid that she would hurt it with her coarse hands. She was struck with wonder at the cambric chemise, which a gust of wind would have carried off as if it had been a pigeon's feather, and by the delicate odor of that scarce flower which filled the narrow cupboard, and which rose up in the darkness from that supple body, that was impregnated with the warmth of the bed.
"She would have liked to be there, in that profaned room, and to tell them in a loud voice—with her hands upon her lips like at the time when she used to serve brandy to her comrades at Daddy l'Arb's—that they had no common sense, that they were none of them good for much, neither the Police Commissary, the husband nor the subordinates, to come and torment a pretty young thing, who was having a little bit of fun, like that. It was a nice job, to get over the wall in that way, to be absent from the second call of names, especially when they were all of the same sort, and were glad of five francs an hour! She had certainly done quite right to get out sometimes and to have a sweetheart, and she was a charming little thing, and that she would say, if she were called before the Court as a witness!
"And she took Madame de Frejus in her arms to quiet her, and repeated the same thing a dozen times, whispered pretty things to her, and interrupted her occasionally to listen whether they were not searching all the nooks and corners of the apartment. 'Come, come,' she said, 4 do not distress yourself. Be calm, my dear...It hurts me to hear you cry like that.... There will be no mischief done, I will vouch for it.'
"The marchioness, who was nearly fainting, and who was prostrate with terror, could only sob out: 'Good heavens! Good heavens!'
"She scarcely seemed to be conscious of anything; her head seemed vacant, her ears buzzed, and she felt benumbed, like one does when one goes to sleep in the snow.
"Oh! Only to forget everything, as her love dream was over, to go out quickly, like those little rose-colored tapers at Nice, on Shrove Tuesday evening.
"Oh! Not to awake any more, as the to-morrow would come in, black and sad, because a whole array of barristers, ushers, solicitors and judges would be against her, and disturb her usual quietude, would torment her, cover her with mud, as her delicious, amorous adventure—her first—which had been so carefully enveloped in mystery, and had been kept so secret behind closed shutters and thick veils, would become an everyday episode of adultery, which would get wind, and be discussed from door to door; the lilac had faded, and she was obliged to bid farewell to happiness, as if to an old friend who was going far, very far away, never to return!
"Suddenly, however, she started and sat up, with her neck stretched out and her eyes fixed, while the excanteen-keeper, who was trembling with emotion, put her hands to her left ear, which was her best, like a speaking trumpet, and tried to hear the cries which succeeded each other from room to room, amidst a noise of opening and shutting of doors.
"'Ah! upon my word, I am not blind....It is Monsieur de Tavernay who is applying again, and making all that noise....Don't you hear, Mame Piquignolles, Mame Piquignolles! Saved, saved!' And she dashed out of the cupboard like an unwieldy mass, with her cap all on one side, an anxious look and heavy legs.
"Tavernay was still quite pale, and in a panting voice he cried out to them: 'Nothing serious, only that fool Fremecourt, who lent me the rooms, has forgotten to pay for his piano for the last five months, a hundred francs a month....You understand ...they came to claim it, and as we did not reply ...why, they fetched the Police Commissary, and so, in the name of the law....
"'A nice fright to give one!' Madame Piquignolles said, throwing herself onto a chair. 'Confound the nasty piano!'
"It may be useless to add, that the marchioness has quite renounced trifles, as our forefathers used to say, and would deserve a prize for virtue, if the Academy would only show itself rather more gallant towards pretty women, who take crossroads in order to become virtuous.
"Emotions like that cure people of running risks of that kind!"
WIFE AND MISTRESS
It was not only her long, silky curls, which covered her small, fairy-like head, like a golden halo, nor her beautiful complexion, nor her mouth, which was like some delicate shell, nor was it her supreme innocence, which was shown by her sudden blushes, and by her somewhat awkward movements, nor was it her ingenious questions which had assailed and conquered George d'Harderme's heart. He had a peculiar temper, and any appearance of a yoke frightened him and put him to flight immediately, and his unstable heart was ready to yield to any temptation, and he was incapable of any lasting attachment, while a succession of women had left no more traces on it than on the seashore, which is constantly being swept by the waves.
It was not the dream of a life of affection, of peace, the want of loving and of being loved, which a fast man so often feels between thirty and forty. His insurmountable lassitude of that circle of pleasure in which he has turned, like a horse in a circus, the voids in his existence which the marriage of his bachelor friends cause, and which in his selfishness he looks upon as desertion, and whom he, nevertheless, envies, which had at last induced him to listen to the prayers and advice of his old mother, and to marry Mademoiselle Suzanne de Gouvres; but the vision that he had had when he saw her playing with quite little children, covering them with kisses, and looking at them with ecstacy in her limpid eyes, and in hearing her talk of the pleasures and the anguish that they must feel who are mothers in the fullest sense of the word-the vision of a happy home where a man feels that he is living again in others of that house, which is full of laughter and of song, and seems as if it were full of birds.
As a matter of fact, he loved children, like some men love animals, and he was interested in them, as in some delightful spectacle, and they attracted him.
He was very gentle, kind and thoughtful with them, invented games for them, took them on his knees, was never tired of listening to their chatter, or of watching the development of their instincts, of their intellect, and of their little, delicate souls.
He used to go and sit in the Parc Monceau, and in the squares, to watch them playing and romping and prattling round him, and one day, as a joke, somebody, a jealous mistress, or some friends in joke, had sent him a splendid wet nurse's cap, with long, pink ribbons.
At first, he was under the influence of the charm that springs from the beginning of an intimacy, from the first kisses, and devoted himself altogether to that amorous education which revealed a new life to him, as it were, and enchanted him.
He thought of nothing except of increasing the ardent love that his wife bestowed on him, and lived in a state of perpetual adoration. Suzanne's feelings, the metamorphosis of that virginal heart, which was beginning to glow with love, and which vibrated, her passion, her modesty, her sensations, were all delicious surprises to him.
He felt that feverish pleasure of a traveler who has discovered some marvelous Eden, and loses his head over it, and, at times, with a long affectionate and proud look at her, which grew even warmer on looking into Suzanne's limpid, blue eyes, he would put his arms round her waist, and pressing her to him so strongly that it hurt the young woman, he exclaimed:
"Oh! I am quite sure that nowhere on earth are there two people who love each other as we do, and who are as happy as you and I are, my darling!"
Months of uninterrupted possession and enchantment succeeded each other without George altering, and without any lassitude mingling with the ardor of their love, or the fire of their affection dying out.
Then, however, suddenly he ceased to be happy, and, in spite of all his efforts to hide his invincible lowness of spirits, he became another man, restless, being irritated at nothing, morose, and bored at everything and everywhere; whimsical, and never knowing what he wanted.
But there was certainly something that was now poisoning that affection which had formerly been his delight, which was coming more and more between him and his wife every day, and which was giving him a distaste for home.
By degrees, that vague suffering assumed a definite shape in his heart, got implanted and fixed there, like a nail. He had not attained his object, and he felt the weight of chains, understood that he could never get used to such an existence, that he could not love a woman who seemed incapable of becoming a mother, who lowered herself to the part of a lawful mistress, and who was not faithful to him.
Alas! To awake from such a dream, to say to himself that he was reduced to envying the good fortune of others, that he should never cover a little, curly, smiling head with kisses, where some striking likeness, some undecided gleams of growing intellect fill a man with joy, but that he would be obliged to take the remainder of his journey in solitude, heart-broken, with nothing but old age around him; that no branch would again spring from the family tree, and that on his death-bed he should not have that last consolation of pressing his dear ones, for whom he struggled and made so many sacrifices, in his failing arms, and who were sobbing with grief, but that soon he should be the prey of indifferent and greedy heirs, who were discounting his approaching death like some valuable security!
George had not told Suzanne the feelings which were tormenting him, and took care that she should not see his state of unhappiness, and he did not worry her with trying questions, that only end in some violent and distressing scene.
But she was too much of a woman, and she loved her husband too much, not to guess what was making him so gloomy, and was imperiling their love.
And every month there came a fresh disappointment, and hope was again deferred. She, however, persisted in believing that their wish would be granted, and grew ill with this painful waiting, and refused to believe that she should never be a mother.
She would have looked upon it as a humiliation either to consult a medical man, or to make a pilgrimage to some shrine, like so many women did, in their despair, and her proud, loyal and loving nature at last rebelled against that hostility, which showed itself in the angry outbursts, the painful silence, and the haughty coldness of the man who could, however, have done anything he liked with her, by a little kindness.
With death in her soul, she had a presentiment of the way of the cross, which is an end of love, of all the bitterness, which sooner or later would end in terrible quarrels, and in words which would put an impassable barrier between them.
At last, one evening, when George d'Hardermes had lost his temper, had wounded her by equivocal words and bad jokes, Suzanne, who was very pale, and who was clutching the arms of her easy chair convulsively, interrupted him with the accents of farewell in her melancholy face:
"As you do not love me any more, why not tell me so, at once, instead of wounding me like this by small, traitorous blows, and, above all, why continue to live together?...You want your liberty, and I will give it to you; you have your fortune, and I have mine. Let us separate without a scandal and without a lawsuit, so that, at least, a little friendship may survive our love...I shall leave Paris and go and live in the country with my mother.... God is my witness, however, that I still love you, my poor George, as much as ever, and that I shall remain your wife, whether I am with you, or separated from you!"
George hesitated for a few moments before replying, with an uneasy, sad look on his face, and then said, turning away his head:
"Yes, perhaps it will be best for both of us!"
They voluntarily broke their marriage contract, as she had heroically volunteered to do. She kept her resolution, exiled herself, buried herself in obscurity, accepted the trial with calm fortitude, and was as resigned as only faithful and devoted souls can be.
They wrote to each other, and she deluded herself, pursued the chimera that George would return to her, would call her back to his side, would escape from his former associates, would understand of what deep love he had voluntarily deprived himself, and would love her again as he had formerly loved her; and she resisted all the entreaties and the advice of her friends, to cut such a false position short, and to institute a suit for divorce against her husband, as the issue would be certain.
He, at the end of a few months of solitude, of evanescent love affairs, when to beguile his loneliness, a man passes from the arms of one woman to those of another, had set up a new home, and had tied himself to a woman whom he had accidentally met at a party of friends, and who had managed to please him and to amuse him.
His deserted wife was naturally not left in ignorance of the fact, and, stifling her jealousy and her grief, she put on a smile, and thought that it would be the same with this one as it had been with all his other ephemeral mistresses, whom her husband had successively got rid of.
Was not that, after all, the best thing to bring about the issue which she longed and hoped for? Would not that doubtful passion, that close intimacy certainly make Monsieur d'Hardermes compare the woman he possessed with the woman he had formerly had, and cause him to invoke that lost paradise and that heart full of forgiveness, of love and of goodness, which had not forgotten him, but which would respond to his first appeal?
And that confidence of hers in a happier future, which neither all the proofs of that connection, in which Monsieur d'Hardermes was becoming more and more involved, and which her friends so kindly furnished her with, nor the disdainful silence with which he treated all her gentle, indulgent letters could shake, had something touching, angelic in it, and reminded those who knew her well, of certain passages in the Lives of the Saints.
At length, however, the sympathy of those who had so often tried to save the young woman, to cure her, and to open her eyes, became exhausted, and, left to herself, Suzanne proudly continued her dream, and absorbed herself in it.
Two interminable years had passed since she had lived with Monsieur d'Hardermes, and since he had put that hateful mistress in her place. She had lost all trace of them, knew nothing about him, and, in spite of everything, did not despair of seeing him again, and regaining her hold over him, who could tell when, or by what miracle, but surely before those eyes which he had so loved were tired of shedding tears, and her fair hair, which he had so often covered with kisses, had grown white.
And the arrival of the postman every morning and evening, made her start and shiver with nervousness.
One day, however, when she was going to Paris, Madame d'Hardermes found herself alone in the ladies' carriage, into which she had got in a hurry, with a peasant woman in her Sunday best, who had a child with pretty pink cheeks and rosy lips, and which was like the dimpled cherubs that one sees in pictures of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, on her lap.
The nurse said affectionate words to the child in a coaxing voice, wrapped it up in the folds of her large cloak, sometimes gave it a noisy, hearty kiss, and it beat the air with little hands, and crowed and laughed with those pretty, attractive babyish movements, that Suzanne could not help exclaiming: "Oh! the pretty little thing!" and taking it into her arms.
At first the child was surprised at the strange face, and for a moment, seemed as if it were going to cry; but it became reassured immediately, smiled at the stranger who looked at it so kindly, inhaled the delicate scent of the iris in the bodice of her dress, with dilated nostrils, and cuddled up against her.
The two women began to talk, and, without knowing why, Madame d'Hardermes questioned the nurse, asked her where she came from, and where she was taking the little thing to.
The other, rather flattered that Suzanne admired the child and took an interest in it, replied, somewhat vaingloriously, that she lived at Bois-le-Roy, and that her husband was a wagoner.
The child had been entrusted to their care by some people in Paris, who appeared very happy, and extremely well off. And the nurse added in a drawling voice:
"Perhaps, Madame, you know my master and mistress, Monsieur and Madame d'Hardermes?"
Suzanne started with surprise and grief, and grew as pale as if all her blood were streaming from some wound, and thinking that she had not heard correctly, with a fixed look and trembling lips, she said, slowly, as if every word hurt her throat:
"You said, Monsieur and Madame d'Hardermes?"
"Yes; do you know them?"
"I, yes...formerly...but it is a long time ago."
She could scarcely speak, and was as pale as death; she hardly knew what she was saying, with her eyes on this pretty child, which George must be so fond of.
She saw him, as if in a window which had suddenly been lifted up, where everything had been dark before, with their arms round each other, and radiant with happiness, with that fair head, that divine dawn, the living, smiling proof of their love, between them.
They would never leave each other; they were already almost as good as married, and were robbing her of the name which she had defended and guarded as a sacred deposit.
She would never succeed in breaking such bonds. It was a shipwreck where nothing could survive, and where the waves did not even drift some shapeless waif and stray ashore.
And great tears rolled down her cheeks, one by one, and wet her veil.
The train stopped at the station, and the nurse scarcely liked to ask Suzanne for the child, who was holding it against her heaving bosom, and kissing it as if she intended to smother it, and she said:
"I suppose the baby reminds you of one you have lost, my poor, dear lady, but the loss can be repaired at your age, surely; a second is as good as a first, and if one does not do oneself justice..."
Madame d'Hardermes gave her back the child, and hurried out straight ahead of her, like a hunted animal, and threw herself into the first cab that she saw...
She sued for a divorce, and obtained it.
[Footnote 10: This manuscript was found among the papers of Viscount Jacques de X—— who committed suicide a few years ago, in his room in an hotel at Piombieres.—R.M.]
For days and days, nights and nights, I had dreamt of that first kiss, which was to consecrate our engagement, and I knew not on what spot I should put my lips, that were madly thirsting for her beauty and her youth. Not on her forehead, that was accustomed to family caresses, nor on her light hair, which mercenary hands had dressed, nor on her eyes, whose turned up lashes looked like little wings, because that would have made me think of the farewell caress which closes the eyelids of some dead woman whom one has adored, nor her lovely mouth, which I will not, which I must not possess until that divine moment when Elaine will at last belong to me altogether and for always, but on that delicious little dimple which comes in one of her cheeks when she is happy, when she smiles, and which excited me as much as her voice did with languorous softness, on that evening when our flirtation began, at the Souverette's.
Our parents had gone away, and were walking slowly under the chestnut trees in the garden, and had left us alone together for a few minutes. I went up to her and took both her hands into mine, which were trembling, and gently drawing her close to me, I whispered:
"How happy I am, Elaine, and how I love you!" and I kissed her almost timidly, on the dimple. She trembled, as if from the pain of a burn, blushed deeply and with an affectionate look, she said: "I love you also, Jacques, and I am very happy!"
That embarrassment, that sudden emotion which revealed the perfect spotlessness of a pure mind, the instinctive recoil of virginity, that childlike innocence, that blush of modesty, delighted me above everything as a presage of happiness. It seemed to me as if I were unworthy of her; I was almost ashamed of bringing her, and of putting into her small, saint-like hands the remains of a damaged heart, that had been polluted by debauchery, that miserable thing which had served as a toy for unworthy mistresses, which was intoxicated with lies, and felt as if it would die of bitterness and disgust....
How quickly she has become accustomed to me, how suddenly she has turned into a woman and become metamorphosed; already she no longer is at all like the artless girl, the sensitive child, to whom I did not know what to say, and whose sudden questions disconcerted me!
She is coquettish, and there is seduction in her attitudes, in her gestures, in her laugh and in her touch. One might think that she was trying her power over me, and that she guesses that I no longer have any will of my own. She does with me whatever she likes, and I am quite incapable of resisting the beautiful charm that emanates from her, and I feel carried away by her caressing hands, and so happy that I am at times frightened at the excess of my own felicity.
My life now passes amidst the most delicious of punishments, those afternoons and evenings that we spend together, those unconstrained moments when, sitting on the sofa together, she rests her head on my shoulder, holds my hands and half shuts her beautiful eyes while we settle what our future life shall be, when I cover her with kisses and inhale the odor of all those little hairs that are as fine as silk and are like a halo round her imperial brow, excite me, unsettle me, kill me, and yet I feel inclined to shed tears, when the time comes for us to part, and I really only exist when I am with Elaine.
I can scarcely sleep; I see her rise up in the darkness, delicate, fair and pink, so supple, so elegant with her small waist and tiny hands and feet, her graceful head and that look of mockery and of coaxing which lies in her smile, that brightness of dawn which illuminates her looks, that when I think that she is going to become my wife, I feel inclined to sing, and to shout out my amorous folly into the silence of the night.
Elaine also seems to be at the end of her strength, has grown languid and nervous; she would like to wipe out the fortnight that we still have to wait, and so little does she hide her longing, that one of her uncles, Colonel d'Orthez, said after dinner the other evening: "By Jove, my children, one would take you for two soldiers who are looking forward to their furlough!"
I do not know what I felt, or whence those fears came which so suddenly assailed me, and took possession of my whole being like a flight of poisoned arrows. The nearer the day approached that I am so ardently longing for, on which Elaine would take my name and belong to me, the more anxious, nervous and tormented by the uncertainty of the morrow, I feel.
I love, and I am passionately loved, and few couples start on the unknown journey of a totally new life and enter into matrimony with such hopes, and the same assurance of happiness, as we two.
I have such faith in the girl I am going to marry, and have made her such vows of love, that I should certainly kill myself without a moment's hesitation if anything were to happen to separate us, to force us to a correct but irremediable rupture, or if Elaine were seized by some illness which carried her off quickly; and yet I hesitate, I am afraid, for I know that many others have made shipwreck, lost their love on the way, disenchanted their wives and have themselves been disenchanted in those first essays of possession, during that first night of tenderness and of intimacy.
What does Elaine expect in her vague innocence, which has been lessened by the half confidences of married friends, by semi-avowals, by all the kisses of this sort of apprenticeship which is a court of love; what does she possess, what does she hope for? Will her refined, delicate, vibrating nature bend to the painful submission of the initial embrace; will she not rebel against that ardent attack that wounds and pains? Oh! to have to say to oneself that it must come to that, to lower the most ideal of affections, to think that one is risking one's whole future happiness at such a hazardous game, that the merest trifle might make a woman completely ridiculous or hopeful, and make an idolized woman laugh or cry!
I do not know a more desirable, prettier or more attractive being in the whole world than Elaine; I am worn out by feverish love, I thirst for her lips and I wish every particle of her being to belong to me; I love her ardently, but I would willingly give half that I possess to have got through this ordeal, to be a week older, and still happy!...
My mother-in-law took me aside yesterday, while they were dancing, and with tears in her eyes, she said in a tremulous voice:
"You are going to possess the most precious object that we possess here, and what we love best.... I beg you to always spare the slightest unhappiness, and to be kind and gentle towards her.... I count on your uprightness and affection to guide her and protect her in this dangerous life in Paris."... And then, giving way to her feelings more and more, she added: "I do not think that you suppose that I have tried to instruct her in her new duties or to disturb her charming innocence, which has been my work; when two persons worship each other like you two do, a girl learns what she is ignorant of, so quickly and so well!"
I very nearly burst out laughing in her face, for such a theatrical phrase appeared to me both ridiculous and doubtful. So that respectable woman had always been a passive, pliable, inert object, who never had one moment of vibration, of tender emotion in her husband's arms, and I understood why, as I wasted at the clubs, he escaped from her as soon as possible and made other connections which cost him dear, but in which he found at least some appearance of love.
Oh! to call that supreme bliss of possession, which makes human beings divine and which transports them far from everything, that despotic pain of virginity, which guesses, which waits, which longs for those mysterious, unknown, brief sufferings that contain the germs of future pleasure, the only happiness of which one never tires, a duty!
And that piece of advice, at the last moment, which was as common-place and natural, and which I ought to have expected, enervated me, and, in spite of myself, plunged me into a state of perplexity, from which I could not extricate myself. I remembered those absurd stories which we hear among friends, after a good dinner. What would be that last trial of our love for her and for me, and could that love which then was my whole life, come out of the ordeal lessened or increased tenfold? And when I looked at the couch on which Elaine, my adored Elaine, was sitting, with her head half-hidden behind the feathers of her fan, she whispered in a rather vexed voice:
"How cross you look, my dear Jacques? Is the fact of your getting married the cause of it? And you have such a mocking look on your face. If the thought of it terrifies you too much, there is still time to say no!"
And delighted, bewitched by her caressing looks, I said in a low voice, almost into her small ear:
"I adore you; and these last moments that still separate us from each other, seem centuries to me, my dear Elaine!"
There were tiresome ceremonies yesterday, and to-day, which I went through almost mechanically.
First, there is the yes before the mayor at the civil ceremony, like some everyday response in church, which one is in a hurry to get over, and which has almost the suggestion of an imperious law, to which one is bound to submit, and of a state of bondage, which will, perhaps, be very irksome, since the whole of existence is made up of chances.
[Footnote 11: Civil marriages are obligatory in France, though usually followed by the religious rite.—TRANSLATOR.]
And then the service in church, with the decorated altar, the voices of the choir, the solemn music of the organ, the unctuous address of the old priest who marks his periods, who seemed quite proud of having prepared Elaine for confirmation, and then the procession to the vestry, the shaking hands, and the greetings of people whom you scarcely see, and whom you do, or do not recognize.
Under the long tulle veil, which almost covered her, with the symbolical orange flowers on her bright, light hair, in her white dress, with her downcast eyes and her graceful figure, Elaine looked to me like a Psyche, whose innocent heart was vowed to love. I felt how vain and artificial all this form was, how little this show counted before this Kiss, the triumphant, revealing, maddening Kiss, which rivets the flesh of the wife to the lips and all the flesh of the husband, which turns the Immaculate youth of the virgin into a woman, and consecrates it to tender caresses, to dreams and to future ecstacies, through the sufferings of a rape.
Elaine loves me, as much as I adore her.
She left her parental abode, as if she was going to some festivity, without turning round toward all that she had left behind her in the way of affection and recollection, and without even a farewell tear, which the first kiss effaces, on her long turned-up lashes.
She looked like a bird which had escaped from its cage, and does not know where to settle, which beats its wings in the intoxication of the light, and which warbles incessantly. She repeated the same words, as if she had been rather intoxicated, and her laugh sounded like the cooing of a pigeon, and looking into my eyes, with her eyes full of languor, and her arms round my neck like a bracelet, and with her burning cheek against mine, she suddenly exclaimed:
"I say, my darling, would you not give ten years of your life to have already got to the end of the journey?"
And that passionate question so disconcerted me, that I did not know what to reply, and my brain reeled, as if I had been at the edge of a precipice. Did she already know what her mother had not told her? Had she already learned what she ought to have been ignorant of? And had that heart, which I used to compare to the Vessel of Election, of which the litanies of Our Lady speak, already been damaged?
Oh! white veils, that hide the blushes, the half-closed eyes and the trembling lips of some Psyche, oh! little hands which you raised in an attitude of prayer toward the lighted and decorated altar, oh! innocent and charming questions, which delighted me to the depths of my being, and which seemed to me to be an absolute promise of happiness, were you nothing but a lie, and a wonderfully well acted piece of trickery?
But was I not wrong, and an idiot, to allow such thoughts to take possession of me, and to poison my deep, absorbing love, which was now my only law and my only object, by odious and foolish suggestions? What an abject and miserable nature I must have, for such a simple, affectionate, natural question to disturb me so, when I ought immediately to have replied to Elaine's question, with all my heart that belonged to hear:
"Yes, ten or twenty years, because you are my happiness, my desire, my love!"
I did not choose to wait until she woke up, I sprang from the bed, where Elaine was still sleeping, with her disheveled hair lying on the lace-edged pillows. Her complexion was almost transparent, her lips were half open, as if she were dreaming, and she seemed so overcome with sleep, that I felt much emotion when I looked at her.
I drank four glasses of mild champagne, one after the other, as quickly as I could, but it did not quench my thirst. I was feverish and would have given anything in the world for something to interest me suddenly and have absorbed me and lifted me out of that slough in which my heart and my brain were being engulfed, as if in a quicksand. I did not venture to avow to myself what was making me so dejected, what was torturing me and driving me mad with grief, or to scrutinize the muddy bottom of my present thoughts sincerely and courageously, to question myself and to pull myself together.
It would have been so odious, so infamous, to harbor such suspicions unjustly, to accuse that adorable creature who was not yet twenty, whom I loved, and who seemed to love me, without having certain proofs, that I felt that I was blushing at the idea that I had any doubt of her innocence. Ah! Why did I marry?
I had a sufficient income to enable me to live as I liked, to pay beautiful women who pleased me, whom I chanced to meet, and who amused me, and who sometimes gave me unexpected proofs of affection, but I had never allowed myself to be caught altogether, and in order to keep my heart warm, I had some romantic and sentimental friendships with women in society, some of those delightful flirtations which have an appearance of love, which fill up the idleness of a useless life with a number of unexpected sensations, with small duties and vague subtle pleasures!
And was I now going to be like one of those ships which an unskillful turn of the helm runs ashore as it is leaving the harbor? What terrible trials were awaiting me, what sorrows and what struggles?
A chaffing friend said to me one night in joke at the club, when I had just broken one of those banks, which form an epoch in a player's life:
"If I were in your place, Jacques, I should distrust such runs of luck as that, for one always has to pay for them sooner or later!"
Sooner or later!
I half opened the bedroom door gently. Elaine was in one of those heavy sleeps that follow intoxication. Who could tell whether, when she opened her eyes and called me, surprised at not finding herself in my arms, her whole being would not become languid, and suddenly sink into a state of prostration? I wanted to reason with myself, and bring myself face to face with those cursed suggestions, as one does with a skittish horse before some object that frightens it, and to evoke the recollection of every hour, every minute of that first night of love, and to extract the secret from her....
Elaine's looks and radiant smile were overflowing with happiness, and she had the air of a conqueror who is proud of his triumph, for she was now a woman already, and we had at least been alone in this modernized country house, which had been redecorated and smartened up to serve as the frame for our affection! She hardly seemed to know what she was saying or doing, and ran from room to room in her light morning dress of mauve crape, without exactly knowing where to sit, and almost dazzled by the light of the lamps that had large shades in the shape of rose leaves over them.
There was no embarrassment, no hesitation, no shamefaced looks, no recoiling from the arms that were stretched out to her, or from the lips that begged; none of those delightful little pieces of awkwardness which show a virgin soul free from all perversion, in her manner of sitting on my knees, or putting her bare arms round my neck, and of offering me the back of her neck and her lips to kiss, but she laughed nervously, and her supple form trembled when I kissed her passionately on various places, and she said things to me that were suitable for being whispered on the pillows, while a strange languor overshadowed her eyes, and dilated her nostrils.
And suddenly with a mocking gesture, which seemed to bid defiance to the supper that was laid on a small table, cold meat of various kinds, plates of fruit and of cakes, the ice pail, from which the neck of a bottle of champagne protruded, she said merrily:
"I am not at all hungry, dear; let us have supper later! what do you say?"
She half turned round to the large bed, which seemed to be quite ready for us, and which looked white in the shadow of the recess in which it stood, with its two white, untouched, almost solemn pillows. She was not smiling any more; there was a bluish gleam in her eyes, like that of burning alcohol, and I lost my head. Elaine did not try to escape, and did not utter a complaint.
Oh! that night of torture and delight, that night which ought never to have ended!
I determined that I would be as patient as a policeman who is trying to discover the traces of a crime, that I would investigate the past of this girl, about which I knew nothing, as I should be sure to discover some proof, some important reminiscence, some servant who had been her accomplice.
And yet I adored her, my pretty, my divine Elaine, and I would consent no matter to what if only she were what I dreamt her, what I wished her to be, if only this nightmare would go and no longer rise up between her and me.
When she woke up, she spoke to me in her coaxing voice.... Oh! her kisses, again her kisses, always her kisses, in spite of everything!
Oh! to have believed blindly, to have believed on my knees that she was not lying, that she was not making a mockery of my tenderness, and that she had never belonged, and never would belong, to any one but me!
I wished that I could have transformed myself into one of those crafty, unctuous priests, to whom women confess their most secret faults, to whom they entrust their souls and frequently ask for advice, and that Elaine would have come and knelt at the grating of the confessional, where I should press her closely with questions, and gradually extract sincere confidences from her.
As soon as I am by the side of a young or old woman now, I try to give our conversation a ticklish turn; I forget all reserve and I try to make her talk of those jokes which nettle, those words of double meaning which excite, and to lead her up to the only subject that interests and holds me, to find out what she feels in her body as well as in her heart, on that night, when for the first time, she has to undergo the nuptial ordeal. Some do not appear to understand me, blush, leave me as if I were some unpleasant, ill-mannered person, and had offended them; as if I had tried to force open the precious casket in which they keep their sweetest recollections.
Others, on the other hand, understand me only too well, scent something equivocal and ridiculous, though they do not exactly know what, make me go on, and finally get out of the difficulty by some subtle piece of impertinence, and a burst of chaffing laughter.
Two or three at most, and they were those pretty little upstarts who talk at random, and brag about their vice, and whom one could soon not leave a leg to stand upon, were one to take the trouble, have related their impressions to me with ironical complaisance, and I found nothing in what they told me that reassured me, nor could I discover anything serious, true or moving in it.
That supreme initiation amused them as much as if it had been a scene from a comedy; the small amount of affection that they felt for the man with whom their existence had been associated grew less and evaporated altogether—and they remembered nothing about it except its ridiculous and hateful side, and described it as a sort of pantomime in which they played a bad part. But these did not love and were not adored like Elaine was. They married either from interest, or that they might not remain old maids, that they might have more liberty and escape from troublesome guardianship.
Foolish dolls, without either heart or head, they had neither that almost diseased nervosity, nor that requirement for affection, nor that instinct of love which I discovered in my wife's nature, and which attracted me, at the same time that it terrified me.
Besides, who could convince me of my errors? Who could dissipate that darkness in which I was lost? What miracle could restore all my belief in her again?
Elaine felt that I was hiding something from her, that I was unhappy, that, as it were, some threatening obstacle had risen up between her and me, that some insupportable suspicion was oppressing me, torturing me and keeping me from her arms, was poisoning and disturbing that affection in which I had hoped to find fresh youth, absolute happiness, my dream of dreams.
She never spoke to me about it, however, but seemed to recoil from a definite explanation, which might make shipwreck of her love. She surrounded me with endearing attentions, and appeared to be trying to make my life so pleasant to me, that nothing in the world could draw me from it! And she would certainly cure me, if this madness of mine, were not, alas! like those wounds which are constantly reopening, and which no balm can heal.
But, at times, I lived again, I imagined that her caresses had exorcised me, that I was saved, that doubt was no longer gnawing at my heart, that I was going to adore her again, like I used to adore her. I used to throw myself at her knees and put my lips on her little hands which she abandoned to me, I looked at her lovely, limpid eyes as if they had been a piece of a blue sky that appeared amidst black storm clouds, and I whispered, with something like a sob in my throat:
"You love me, do you not, with all your heart; you love me as much as I love you; tell me so again, my dear love; tell me that, and nothing but that!"
And she used to reply eagerly, with a smile of joy on her lips:
"Do you not know it? Do you not see every moment that I love you, that you have taken entire possession of me, and that I only live for you and by you?"
And her kisses gave me new life, and intoxicated me, like when one returns from a long journey and had been in peril and is despaired of ever seeing some beloved object again, and one meets with a sort of frenzied embrace, and forgets everything in that divine feeling that one is going to die of happiness....
But these were only ephemeral clear spots in our sky, and the cries which accompanied them only grew more bitter and terrible. I knew that Elaine was growing more and more uneasy at the apparent strangeness of my character, that she suffered from it and that it affected her nerves, that the existence to which I was condemning her in spite of myself, that all this immoderate love of mine, followed by fits of inexplicable coldness and of low spirits, disconcerted her, so that she was no longer the same, and kept away from me. She could not hide her grief, and was continually worrying me with questions of affectionate pity. She repeated the same things over and over again, with hateful persistence. She had vexed me, without knowing it! Was I already tired of my married life, and did I regret my lost liberty? Had I any private troubles which I had not told her of; heavy debts which I did not know how to pay; was it family matters or some former connection with a woman that I had broken off suddenly, and that now threatened to create a scandal? Was I being worried by anonymous letters? What was it, in a word; what was it?
My denials only exasperated her, so that she sulked in silence, while her brain worked and her heart grew hard towards me; but could I, as a matter of fact, tell her of my suspicions which were filling my life with gloom and annihilating me? Would it not be odious and vile to accuse her of such a fall, without any proofs or any clue, and would she ever forget such an insult?
I almost envied those unfortunate wretches who had the right to be jealous, who had to fight against a woman's coquettes and light behavior, and who had to defend their honor that was threatened by some poacher on the preserves of love. They had a target to aim at; they knew their enemies and knew what they were doing, while I was wounding in a land of terrible mirages, was struggling in the midst of vague suppositions, and was causing my own troubles and was enraged with her past, which was, I felt sure, as white and pure as any bridal veil.
Ah! It would be better to blow my brains out, I thought to myself, than to prolong such a situation! I had had enough of it. I scarcely lived, and I wished to know all that Elaine had done before we became engaged. I wanted to know whether I was the first or the second, and I determined to know it, even if I had to sacrifice years of my life in inquiry, and to lower myself to compromising words and acts, and to every species of artifice and to spend everything that I possessed!
She might believe whatever she liked, for after all, I should only laugh at it. We might have been so happy, and there were so many who envied me, and who would gladly have consented to take my place!
I no longer knew where I was going, but was like a train going at full speed through a dense fog, and which in vain disturbs the perfect silence of the sleeping country with its puffing and shrill whistles; when the driver cannot distinguish the changing lights of the discs, nor the signals, and when soon some terrible crash will send the train off the rails, and the carriages will become a heap of ruins.
I was afraid of going mad, and at times I asked myself whether any of my family had shown any signs of mental aberration, and had been locked up in a lunatic asylum, and whether the life of constant fast pleasures, of turning night into day and of frequent violent emotions, that I had led for years, had not at last affected my brain. If I had believed in anything, and in the science of the occult, which haunts so many restless brains, I should have imagined that some enemy was bewitching me and laying invisible snares for me, that he was suggesting those actions which were quite unworthy of the frank, upright and well-bred man that I was, and was trying to destroy the happiness of which she and I had dreamt.
For a whole week I devoted myself to that hateful business of playing the spy, and to those inquiries which were killing me. I had succeeded in discovering the lady's maid who had been in Elaine's service before we were married, and whom she loved as if she had been her foster sister, who used to accompany her whenever she went out, when she went to visit the poor and when she went for a walk, who used to wake her every morning, do her hair and dress her. She was young and rather pretty, and one saw that Paris had improved her and given her a polish, and that she knew her difficult business from end to end.
I had found out, however, that her virtue was only apparent, especially since she had changed employers; that she was fond of going to the public balls, and that she divided her favors between a man who came from her part of the country, and who was a sergeant in a dragoon regiment, and a footman, and that she spent all her money on horse races and on dress. I felt sure that I should be able to make her talk and get the truth out of her, either by money or cunning, and so I asked her to meet me early one morning in a quiet square.
She listened to me first of all in astonishment, without replying yes or no, as if she did not understand what I was aiming at, or with what object I was asking her all these questions about her former mistress; but when I offered her a few hundred francs to loosen her tongue, as I was impatient to get the matter over and pretended to know that she had managed interviews for Elaine with her lovers, that they were known and being followed, that she was in the habit of frequenting quiet bachelors' quarters, from which she returned late, the sly little wench frowned angrily, shrugged her shoulders and exclaimed:
"What pigs some men are to have such ideas, and cause such an excellent person as Mademoiselle Elaine any unhappiness. Look here, you disgust me with your banknotes and your dirty stories, and I don't choose to say what you ought to wear on your head!"
She turned her back on me and hurried off, and her insolence, that indignant reply which she had given me, rejoiced me to the depths of my heart, like soothing balm that lulls the pain.
I should have liked to have called her back, and told her that it was all a joke, that I was devotedly in love with my wife, that I was always on the watch to hear her praised, but she was already out of sight, and I felt that I was ridiculous and mean, that I had lowered myself by what I had done, and I swore that I would profit by such a humiliating lesson, and for the future show myself to Elaine as the trusting and ardent husband that she deserved, and I thought myself cured, altogether cured....
And yet, I was again the prey to the same bad thoughts, to the same doubts, and persuaded that that girl had lied to me just like all other women lie when they are on the defensive, that she made fun of me, that perhaps some one had foreseen this scene and had told her what to say and made sure of her silence, just as her complicity had been gained. Thus I shall always knock up against some barrier, and struggle in this wretched darkness, and this mire from which I cannot extricate myself!
Nobody knew anything. Neither the Superior of the Convent where she had been brought up until she was sixteen, nor the servants who had waited on her, nor the governesses who had finished her education, could remember that Elaine had been difficult to check or teach, or that she had had any other ideas than those of her age. She had certainly shown no precocious coquetry and disquieting instincts; she had had no equivocal cousinly relationships, when if the bridle is left on their neck at all, and one of them has learned at school what love is, the two big children yield to the fatal law of sex, and begin the inevitable eclogue of Daphne and Chole over again.
However, Oh! I felt it too much for it to be nothing but a chimera and a mirage, it was no virgin who threw her arms round my neck so lovingly, and who returned my first kisses so deliciously, who was attracted by my society, who gave no signs of surprise and uttered no complaint, who appeared to forget everything when in my society. No, no, a thousand times no, that could not have been a pure woman.
I ought to have cast off that intoxication which was bewitching me, and to have rushed out of the room where such a lie was being consummated; I ought to have profited by her moments of amiable weakness, while she was incapable of collecting her thoughts, when she would with tears have confessed an old fault, for which the unhappy girl had not, perhaps, been altogether responsible. Perhaps by my entreaties, or even perhaps by violence, in terror at my furious looks, when my features would have been distorted by rage, and my hands clenched in spite of myself in a gesture of menace and of murder, I might have forced her to open her heart, to show me its defilement, and to tell me this sad love episode.