"Hallo, here's Madame Poincot; give a good look at her. I assure you that she's making eyes at you."
She was moving along on the arm of her husband. She was a woman of about forty, very handsome still, slightly stout, but, owing to her graceful fullness of figure, as fresh as she was at twenty. Among her friends she was known as the Goddess on account of her proud gait, her large black eyes, and the entire air of nobility of her person. She remained irreproachable; never had the least suspicion cast a breath on her life's purity. She was regarded as the very type of a virtuous, uncorrupted woman. So upright that no man had ever dared to think of her.
And yet for the last month Paul d'Henricol had been assuring his friend Renoldi that Madame Poincot was in love with him, and he maintained that there was no doubt of it.
"Be sure I don't deceive myself. I see it clearly. She loves you—she loves you passionately, like a chaste woman who had never loved. Forty years is a terrible age for virtuous women when they possess senses; they become foolish, and commit utter follies. She is hit, my dear fellow; she is falling like a wounded bird, and is ready to drop into your arms. I say—just look at her!"
The tall woman, preceded by her two daughters, aged twelve and fifteen years, suddenly turned pale, on her approach, as her eyes lighted on the officer's face. She gave him an ardent glance, concentrating her gaze upon him, and no longer seemed to have any eyes for her children, her husband, or any other person around her. She returned the salutation of the two young men without lowering her eyes, glowing with such a flame that a doubt, at last, forced its way into Lieutenant Renoldi's mind.
His friend said, in the same hushed voice: "I was sure of it. Did you not notice her this time? By Jove, she is a nice tit-bit!"
* * * * *
But Jean Renoldi had no desire for a society intrigue. Caring little for love, he longed, above all, for a quiet life, and contented himself with occasional amours such as a young man can always have. All the sentimentality, the attentions, and the tenderness which a well-bred woman exacts bored him. The chain, however slight it might be, which is always formed by an adventure of this sort, filled him with fear. He said: "At the end of a month I'll have had enough of it, and I'll be forced to wait patiently for six months through politeness."
Then, a rupture exasperated him, with the scenes, the allusions, the clinging attachment, of the abandoned woman.
He avoided meeting Madame Poincot.
But, one evening he found himself by her side at a dinner-party, and he felt on his skin, in his eyes, and even in his heart, the burning glance of his fair neighbor. Their hands met, and almost involuntarily were pressed together in a warm clasp. Already the intrigue was almost begun.
He saw her again, always in spite of himself. He realized that he was loved. He felt himself moved by a kind of pitying vanity when he saw what a violent passion for him swayed this woman's breast. So he allowed himself to be adored, and merely displayed gallantry, hoping that the affair would be only sentimental.
But, one day, she made an appointment with him for the ostensible purpose of seeing him and talking freely to him. She fell, swooning, into his arms; and he had no alternative but to be her lover.
And this lasted six months. She loved him with an unbridled, panting love. Absorbed in this frenzied passion, she no longer bestowed a thought on anything else. She surrendered herself to it utterly—her body, her soul, her reputation, her position, her happiness—all she had cast into that fire of her heart, as one casts, as a sacrifice, every precious object into a funeral pier.
He had for some time grown tired of her, and deeply regretted his easy conquest as a fascinating officer; but he was bound, held prisoner. At every moment she said to him: "I have given you everything. What more would you have?" He felt a desire to answer:
"But I have asked nothing from you, and I beg of you to take back what you gave me."
Without caring about being seen, compromised, ruined, she came to see him every evening, her passion becoming more inflamed each time they met. She flung herself into his arms, strained him in a fierce embrace, fainted under the force of rapturous kisses which to him were now terribly wearisome.
He said in a languid tone: "Look here! be reasonable!"
"I love you," and sank on her knees gazing at him for a long time in an attitude of admiration. At length, exasperated by her persistent gaze, he tried to make her rise.
"I say! Sit down. Let us talk."
"No, leave me;" and remained there, her soul in a state of ecstasy.
He said to his friend d'Henricol:
"You know, 'twill end by my beating her. I won't have any more of it! It must end, and that without further delay!" Then he went on:
"What do you advise me to do?"
The other replied:
"Break it off."
And Renoldi added, shrugging his shoulders:
"You speak indifferently about the matter; you believe that it is easy to break with a woman who tortures you with attention, who annoys you with kindnesses, who persecutes you with her affection, whose only care is to please you, and whose only wrong is that she gave herself to you in spite of you."
But suddenly, one morning the news came that the regiment was about to be removed from the garrison; Renoldi began to dance with joy. He was saved! Saved without scenes, without cries! Saved! All he had to do now was to wait patiently for two months more. Saved!
In the evening she came to him more excited than she had ever been before. She had heard the dreadful news, and, without taking off her hat she caught his hands and pressed them nervously, with her eyes fixed on his, and her voice vibrating and resolute.
"You are leaving," she said; "I know it. At first, I felt heart-broken; then, I understood what I had to do. I don't hesitate about doing it. I have come to give you the greatest proof of love that a woman can offer. I follow you. For you I am abandoning my husband, my children, my family. I am ruining myself, but I am happy. It seems to me that I am giving myself to you over again. It is the last and the greatest sacrifice. I am yours for ever!"
He felt a cold sweat down his back, and was seized with a dull and violent rage, the anger of weakness. However, he became calm, and, in a disinterested tone, with a show of kindness, he refused to accept her sacrifice, tried to appease her, to bring her to reason, to make her see her own folly! She listened to him, staring at him with her great black eyes and with a smile of disdain on her lips, and said not a word in reply. He went on talking to her, and when, at length, he stopped, she said merely:
"Can you really be a coward? Can you be one of those who seduce a woman, and then throw her over, through sheer caprice?"
He became pale, and renewed his arguments; he pointed out to her the inevitable consequences of such an action to both of them as long as they lived—how their lives would be shattered and how the world would shut its doors against them. She replied obstinately: "What does it matter when we love each other?" Then, all of a sudden, he burst out furiously:
"Well, then, I will not. No—do you understand? I will not do it, and I forbid you to do it." Then, carried away by the rancorous feeling which had seethed within him so long, he relieved his heart:
"Ah, damn it all, you have now been sticking on to me for a long time in spite of myself, and the best thing for you now is to take yourself off. I'll be much obliged if you do so, upon my honor!"
She did not answer him, but her livid countenance began to look shriveled up, as if all her nerves and muscles had been twisted out of shape. And she went away without saying good-bye.
The same night she poisoned herself.
For a week she was believed to be in a hopeless condition. And in the city people gossiped about the case, and pitied her, excusing her sin on account of the violence of her passion, for overstrained emotions, becoming heroic through their intensity, always obtain forgiveness for whatever is blameworthy in them. A woman who kills herself is, so to speak, not an adulteress. And ere long there was a feeling of general reprobation against Lieutenant Renoldi for refusing to see her again—a unanimous sentiment of blame.
It was a matter of common talk that he had deserted her, betrayed her, ill-treated her. The Colonel, overcome by compassion, brought his officer to book in a quiet way. Paul d'Henricol called on his friend:
"Deuce take it, Renoldi, it's not good enough to let a woman die; it's not the right thing anyhow."
The other, enraged, told him to hold his tongue, whereupon d'Henricol made use of the word "infamy." The result was a duel, Renoldi was wounded, to the satisfaction of everybody, and was for some time confined to his bed.
She heard about it, and only loved him the more for it, believing that it was on her account he had fought the duel; but, as she was too ill to move, she was unable to see him again before the departure of the regiment.
He had been three months in Lille when he received one morning, a visit from the sister of his former mistress.
After long suffering and a feeling of dejection, which she could not conquer, Madame Poincot's life was now despaired of, and she merely asked to see him for a minute, only for a minute, before closing her eyes for ever.
Absence and time had appeased the young man's satiety and anger; he was touched, moved to tears, and he started at once for Havre.
She seemed to be in the agonies of death. They were left alone together; and by the bedside of this woman whom he now believed to be dying, and whom he blamed himself for killing, though it was not by his own hand, he was fairly crushed with grief. He burst out sobbing, embraced her with tender, passionate kisses, more lovingly than he had ever done in the past. He murmured in a broken voice:
"No, no, you shall not die! You shall get better! We shall love each other for ever—for ever!"
She said in faint tones:
"Then it is true. You do love me, after all?"
And he, in his sorrow for her misfortunes, swore, promised to wait till she had recovered, and full of loving pity, kissed again and again the emaciated hands of the poor woman whose heart was panting with feverish, irregular pulsations.
The next day he returned to the garrison.
Six weeks later she went to meet him, quite old-looking, unrecognizable, and more enamored than ever.
In his condition of mental prostration, he consented to live with her. Then, when they remained together as if they had been legally united, the same colonel who had displayed indignation with him for abandoning her, objected to this irregular connection as being incompatible with the good example officers ought to give in a regiment. He warned the lieutenant on the subject, and then furiously denounced his conduct, so Renoldi retired from the army.
He went to live in a village on the shore of the Mediterranean, the classic sea of lovers.
And three years passed. Renoldi, bent under the yoke, was vanquished, and became accustomed to the woman's persevering devotion. His hair had now turned white.
He looked upon himself as a man done for, gone under. Henceforth, he had no hope, no ambition, no satisfaction in life, and he looked forward to no pleasure in existence.
But one morning a card was placed in his hand, with the name—"Joseph Poincot, Shipowner, Havre."
The husband! The husband, who had said nothing, realizing that there was no use in struggling against the desperate obstinacy of women. What did he want?
He was waiting in the garden, having refused to come into the house. He bowed politely, but would not sit down, even on a bench in a gravel-path, and he commenced talking clearly and slowly.
"Monsieur, I did not come here to address reproaches to you. I know too well how things happened. I have been the victim of—we have been the victims of—a kind of fatality. I would never have disturbed you in your retreat if the situation had not changed. I have two daughters, Monsieur. One of them, the elder, loves a young man, and is loved by him. But the family of this young man is opposed to the marriage, basing their objection on the situation of—my daughter's mother. I have no feeling of either anger or spite, but I love my children, Monsieur. I have, therefore, come to ask my wife to return home. I hope that to-day she will consent to go back to my house—to her own house. As for me, I will make a show of having forgotten, for—for the sake of my daughters."
Renoldi felt a wild movement in his heart, and he was inundated with a delirium of joy like a condemned man who receives a pardon.
He stammered: "Why, yes—certainly, Monsieur—I myself—be assured of it—no doubt—it is right, it is only quite right."
This time M. Poincot no longer declined to sit down.
Renoldi then rushed up the stairs, and pausing at the door of his mistress's room, to collect his senses, entered gravely.
"There is somebody below waiting to see you," he said. "'Tis to tell you something about your daughters."
She rose up. "My daughters? What about them? They are not dead?"
He replied: "No; but a serious situation has arisen, which you alone can settle."
She did not wait to hear more, but rapidly descended the stairs.
Then, he sank down on a chair, greatly moved, and waited.
He waited a long long time. Then he heard angry voices below stairs, and made up his mind to go down.
Madame Poincot was standing up exasperated, just on the point of going away, while her husband had seized hold of her dress, exclaiming: "But remember that you are destroying our daughters, your daughters, our children!"
She answered stubbornly:
"I will not go back to you!"
Renoldi understood everything, came over to them in a state of great agitation, and gasped:
"What, does she refuse to go?"
She turned towards him, and, with a kind of shame-facedness, addressed him without any familiarity of tone, in the presence of her legitimate husband, said:
"Do you know what he asks me to do? He wants me to go back, and live under one roof with him!"
And she tittered with a profound disdain for this man, who was appealing to her almost on his knees.
Then Renoldi, with the determination of a desperate man playing his last card, began talking to her in his turn, and pleaded the cause of the poor girls, the cause of the husband, his own cause. And when he stopped, trying to find some fresh argument, M. Poincot, at his wits' end, murmured, in the affectionate style in which he used to speak to her in days gone by:
"Look here, Delphine! Think of your daughters!"
Then she turned on both of them a glance of sovereign contempt, and, after that, flying with a bound towards the staircase, she flung at them these scornful words:
"You are a pair of wretches!"
Left alone, they gazed at each other for a moment, both equally crestfallen, equally crushed. M. Poincot picked up his hat, which had fallen down near where he sat, dusted off his knees the signs of kneeling on the floor, then raising both hands sorrowfully, while Renoldi was seeing him to the door, remarked with a parting bow:
"We are very unfortunate, Monsieur."
Then he walked away from the house with a heavy step.
* * * * *
The broad sunlight threw its burning rays on the fields, and under this shower of flame life burst forth in glowing vegetation from the earth. As far as the eye could see, the soil was green; and the sky was blue to the verge of the horizon. The Norman farms scattered through the plain seemed at a distance like little doors enclosed each in a circle of thin beech trees. Coming closer, on opening the worm-eaten stile, one fancied that he saw a giant garden, for all the old apple-trees, as knotted as the peasants, were in blossom. The weather-beaten black trunks, crooked, twisted, ranged along the enclosure, displayed beneath the sky their glittering domes, rosy and white. The sweet perfume of their blossoms mingled with the heavy odors of the open stables and with the fumes of the steaming dunghill, covered with hens and their chickens. It was midday. The family sat at dinner in the shadow of the pear-tree planted before the door—the father, the mother, the four children, the two maid-servants, and the three farm laborers. They scarcely uttered a word. Their fare consisted of soup and of a stew composed of potatoes mashed up in lard.
From time to time one of the maid-servants rose up and went to the cellar to fetch a pitcher of cider.
The husband, a big fellow of about forty, stared at a vine-tree, quite exposed to view, which stood close to the farm-house twining like a serpent under the shutters the entire length of the wall.
He said, after a long silence:
"The father's vine-tree is blossoming early this year. Perhaps it will bear good fruit."
The peasant's wife also turned round, and gazed at the tree without speaking.
This vine-tree was planted exactly in the place where the father of the peasant had been shot.
* * * * *
It was during the war of 1870. The Prussians were in occupation of the entire country. General Faidherbe, with the Army of the North, was at their head.
Now the Prussian staff had taken up its quarters in this farm-house. The old peasant who owned it, Pere Milon Pierre, received them, and gave them the best treatment he could.
For a whole month the German vanguard remained on the look-out in the village. The French were posted ten leagues away without moving; and yet each night, some of the Uhlans disappeared.
All the isolated scouts, those who were sent out on patrol, whenever they started in groups of two or three, never came back.
They were picked up dead in the morning in a field, near a farm-yard, in a ditch. Their horses even were found lying on the roads with their throats cut by a saber-stroke. These murders seemed to have been accomplished by the same men, who could not be discovered.
The country was terrorized. Peasants were shot on mere information, women were imprisoned, attempts were made to obtain revelations from children by fear.
But, one morning, Pere Milon was found stretched in his stable, with a gash across his face.
Two Uhlans ripped open were seen lying three kilometers away from the farm-house. One of them still grasped in his hand his blood-stained weapon. He had fought and defended himself.
A council of war having been immediately constituted, in the open air, in front of the farm-house, the old man was brought before it.
He was sixty-eight years old. He was small, thin, a little crooked, with long hands resembling the claws of a crab. His faded hair, scanty and slight, like the down on a young duck, allowed his scalp to be plainly seen. The brown, crimpled skin of his neck showed the big veins which sank under his jaws and reappeared at his temples. He was regarded in the district as a miser and a hard man in business transactions.
He was placed standing between four soldiers in front of the kitchen table, which had been carried out of the house for the purpose. Five officers and the Colonel sat facing him. The Colonel was the first to speak.
"Pere Milon," he said, in French, "since we came here, we have had nothing to say of you but praise. You have always been obliging, and even considerate towards us. But to-day a terrible accusation rests on you, and the matter must be cleared up. How did you get the wound on your face?"
The peasant gave no reply.
The Colonel went on:
"Your silence condemns you, Pere Milon. But I want you to answer me, do you understand. Do you know who has killed the two Uhlans who were found this morning near the cross-roads?"
The old man said in a clear voice:
"It was I!"
The Colonel, surprised, remained silent for a second, looking steadfastly at the prisoner. Pere Milon maintained his impassive demeanor, his air of rustic stupidity, with downcast eyes, as if he were talking to his cure. There was only one thing that could reveal his internal agitation, the way in which he slowly swallowed his saliva with a visible effort, as if he were choking.
The old peasant's family—his son Jean, his daughter-in-law, and two little children stood ten paces behind scared and dismayed.
The Colonel continued:
"Do you know also who killed all the scouts of our Army, whom we have found every morning, for the past month, lying here and there in the fields?"
The old man answered with the same brutal impassiveness:
"It was I!"
"It is you, then, that killed them all?"
"All of them—yes, it was I."
"Tell me the way you managed to do it?"
This time the peasant appeared to be affected; the necessity of speaking at some length incommoded him.
"I know myself. I did it the way I found easiest."
The Colonel proceeded:
"I warn you, you must tell me everything. You will do well, therefore, to make up your mind about it at once. How did you begin it?"
The peasant cast an uneasy glance towards his family, who remained in a listening attitude behind him. He hesitated for another second or so, then all of a sudden, he came to a resolution on the matter.
"I came home one night about ten o'clock and the next day you were here. You and your soldiers gave me fifty crowns for forage with a cow and two sheep. Said I to myself: 'As long as I get twenty crowns out of them, I'll sell them the value of it.' But then I had other things in my heart, which I'll tell you about now. I came across one of your cavalrymen smoking his pipe near my dike, just behind my barn. I went and took my scythe off the hook, and I came back with short steps from behind, while he lay there without hearing anything. And I cut off his head with one stroke, like a feather, while he only said 'Oof!' You have only to look at the bottom of the pond; you'll find him there in a coal-bag, with a big stone tied to it.
"I got an idea into my head. I took all he had on him from his boots to his cap, and I hid them in the bake-house in the Martin wood behind the farm-yard."
The old man stopped. The officers, speechless, looked at one another. The examination was resumed, and this is what they were told.
* * * * *
Once he had accomplished this murder, the peasant lived with only one thought: "To kill the Prussians!" He hated them with the sly and ferocious hatred of a countryman who was at the same time covetous and patriotic. He had got an idea into his head, as he put it. He waited for a few days.
He was allowed to go and come freely, to go out and return just as he pleased, as long as he displayed humility, submissiveness, and complaisance towards the conquerors.
Now, every evening he saw the cavalrymen bearing dispatches leaving the farmhouse; and he went out one night after discovering the name of the village to which they were going, and after picking up by associating with the soldiers the few words of German he needed.
He made his way through his farm-yard slipped into the wood, reached the bake-house, penetrated to the end of the long passage, and having found the clothes of the soldier which he had hidden there, he put them on. Then, he went prowling about the fields, creeping along, keeping to the slopes so as to avoid observation, listening to the least sounds, restless as a poacher.
When he believed the time had arrived he took up his position at the roadside, and hid himself in a clump of brushwood. He still waited. At length, near midnight, he heard the galloping of a horse's hoofs on the hard soil of the road. The old man put his ear to the ground to make sure that only one cavalryman was approaching; then he got ready.
The Uhlan came on at a very quick pace, carrying some dispatches. He rode forward with watchful eyes and strained ears. As soon as he was no more than ten paces away, Pere Milon dragged himself across the road, groaning: "Hilfe! Hilfe!" ("Help! help!")
The cavalryman drew up, recognized a German soldier dismounted, believed that he was wounded, leaped down from his horse, drew near the prostrate man, never suspecting anything, and, as he stooped over the stranger, he received in the middle of the stomach the long curved blade of the saber. He sank down without any death throes, merely quivering with a few last shudders.
Then, the Norman radiant with the mute joy of an old peasant, rose up, and merely to please himself, cut the dead soldier's throat. After that, he dragged the corpse to the dike and threw it in.
The horse was quietly waiting for its rider. Pere Milon got on the saddle, and started across the plain at the gallop.
At the end of an hour, he perceived two more Uhlans approaching the staff-quarters side by side. He rode straight towards them, crying, "Hilfe! hilfe!" The Prussians let him come on, recognizing the uniform without any distrust.
And like a cannon-ball, the old man shot between the two, bringing both of them to the ground with his saber and a revolver. The next thing he did was to cut the throats of the horses—the German horses! Then, softly he re-entered the bake-house, and hid the horse he had ridden himself in the dark passage. There he took off the uniform, put on once more his own old clothes, and going to his bed, slept till morning.
For four days he did not stir out, awaiting the close of the open inquiry as to the cause of the soldiers' deaths; but, on the fifth day, he started out again, and by a similar stratagem killed two more soldiers.
Thenceforth he never stopped. Each night he wandered about, prowled through the country at random, cutting down some Prussians, sometimes here, sometimes there, galloping through the deserted fields under the moonlight, a lost Uhlan, a hunter of men. Then when he had finished his task, leaving behind the corpses lying along the roads, the old horseman went to the bake-house, where he concealed both the animal and the uniform. About midday he calmly returned to the spot to give the horse a feed of oats and some water, and he took every care of the animal, exacting therefore the hardest work.
But, the night before his arrest, one of the soldiers he attacked put himself on his guard, and cut the old peasant's face with a slash of a saber.
He had, however, killed both of them. He had even managed to go back and hide his horse and put on his everyday garb, but, when he reached the stable, he was overcome by weakness, and was not able to make his way into the house.
He had been found lying on the straw, his face covered with blood.
* * * * *
When he had finished his story, he suddenly lifted his head, and glanced proudly at the Prussian officers.
The Colonel, tugging at his moustache, asked:
"Have you anything more to say?"
"No, nothing more; we are quits. I killed sixteen, not one more, not one less."
"You know you have to die?"
"I ask for no quarter!"
"Have you been a soldier?"
"Yes, I served at one time. And 'tis you killed my father, who was a soldier of the first Emperor, not to speak of my youngest son, Francois, whom you killed last month near Exreux. I owed this to you, and I've paid you back. 'Tis tit for tat!"
The officers stared at one another.
The old man went on:
"Eight for my father, eight for my son—that pays it off! I sought for no quarrel with you. I don't know you! I only know where you came from. You came to my house here, and ordered me about as if the house was yours. I have had my revenge, and I'm glad of it!"
And stiffening up his old frame, he folded his arms in the attitude of a humble hero.
The Prussians held a long conference. A captain, who had also lost a son the month before, defended the brave old scoundrel.
Then the Colonel rose up, and, advancing towards Pere Milon, he said, lowering his voice:
"Listen, old man! There is perhaps one way of saving your life—it is—"
But the old peasant was not listening to him, and fixing his eyes directly on the German officer, while the wind made the scanty hair move to and fro on his skull, he made a frightful grimace, which shriveled up his pinched countenance scarred by the saber-stroke, and, puffing out his chest, he spat, with all his strength, right into the Prussian's face.
The Colonel, stupefied, raised his hand, and for the second time the peasant spat in his face.
All the officers sprang to their feet and yelled out orders at the same time.
In less than a minute, the old man, still as impassive as ever, was stuck up against the wall, and shot while he cast a smile at Jean, his eldest son, and then at his daughter-in-law and the two children, who were staring with terror at the scene.
* * * * *
THE IMPOLITE SEX
Madame de X. to Madame de L.
My dear Aunt,—I am going to pay you a visit without making much fuss about it. I shall be at Les Fresnes on the 2nd of September, the day before the hunting season opens, as I do not want to miss it, so that I may tease these gentlemen. You are very obliging, aunt, and I would like you to allow them to dine with you, as you usually do when there are no strange guests, without dressing or shaving for the occasion, on the ground that they are fatigued.
They are delighted, of course, when I am not present. But I shall be there, and I shall hold a review, like a general, at the dinner-hour; and, if I find a single one of them at all careless in dress, no matter how little, I mean to send him down to the kitchen to the servant-maids.
The men of to-day have so little consideration for others and so little good manners that one must be always severe with them. We live indeed in an age of vulgarity. When they quarrel with one another, they attack one another with insults worthy of street-porters, and, in our presence, they do not conduct themselves even as well as our servants. It is at the seaside that you see this most clearly. They are to be found there in battalions, and you can judge them in the lump.
Oh! what coarse beings they are!
Just imagine in a train, one of them, a gentleman who looked well, as I thought, at first sight, thanks to his tailor, was dainty enough to take off his boots in order to put on a pair of old shoes! Another, an old man, who was probably some wealthy upstart (these are the most ill-bred), while sitting opposite to me, had the delicacy to place his two feet on the seat quite close to me. This is a positive fact.
At the water-places, there is an unrestrained outpouring of unmannerliness. I must here make one admission—that my indignation is perhaps due to the fact that I am not accustomed to associate, as a rule, with the sort of people one comes across here, for I should be less shocked by their manners if I had the opportunity of observing them oftener. In the inquiry-office of the hotel, I was nearly thrown down by a young man who snatched the key over my head. Another knocked against me so violently without begging my pardon or lifting his hat, coming away from a ball at the Casino, that he gave me a pain in the chest. It is the same way with all of them. Watch them addressing ladies on the terrace; they scarcely ever bow. They merely raise their hands to their head-gear. But indeed, as they are all more or less bald, it is their best plan.
But what exasperates and disgusts me specially is the liberty they take of talking publicly without any precaution whatsoever about the most revolting adventures. When two men are together, they relate to each other, in the broadest language and with the most abominable comments really horrible stories without caring in the slightest degree whether a woman's ear is within reach of their voices. Yesterday, on the beach I was forced to go away from the place where I sat in order not to be any longer the involuntary confidante of an obscene anecdote, told in such immodest language that I felt just as much humiliated as indignant at having heard it. Would not the most elementary good-breeding have taught them to speak in a lower tone about such matters when we are near at hand. Etretat is, moreover, the country of gossip and scandal. From five to seven o'clock you can see people wandering about in quest of nasty stories about others which they retail from group to group. As you remarked to me, my dear aunt, tittle-tattle is the mark of petty individuals and petty minds. It is also the consolation of women who are no longer loved or sought after. It is enough for me to observe the women who are fondest of gossiping to be persuaded that you are quite right.
The other day I was present at a musical evening at the Casino, given by a remarkable artist, Madame Masson, who sings in a truly delightful manner. I took the opportunity of applauding the admirable Coquelin, as well as two charming boarders of the Vaudeville, M—— and Meillet. I was able, on the occasion, to see all the bathers collected together this year on the beach. There were not many persons of distinction among them.
Next day I went to lunch at Yport. I noticed a tall man with a beard who was coming out of a large house like a castle. It was the painter, Jean Paul Laurens. He is not satisfied apparently with imprisoning the subjects of his pictures he insists on imprisoning himself.
Then, I found myself seated on the shingle close to a man still young, of gentle and refined appearance, who was reading some verses. But he read them with such concentration, with such passion, I may say, that he did not even raise his eyes towards me. I was somewhat astonished, and I asked the conductor of the baths without appearing to be much concerned, the name of this gentleman. I laughed inwardly a little at this reader of rhymes; he seemed behind the age, for a man. This person, I thought, must be a simpleton. Well, aunt, I am now infatuated about this stranger. Just fancy, his name is Sully Prudhomme! I turned round to look at him at my ease, just where I sat. His face possesses the two qualities of calmness and elegance. As somebody came to look for him, I was able to hear his voice, which is sweet and almost timid. He would certainly not tell obscene stories aloud in public, or knock against ladies without apologizing. He is sure to be a man of refinement, but his refinement is of an almost morbid, vibrating character. I will try this winter to get an introduction to him.
I have no more news to tell you, my dear aunt, and I must interrupt this letter in haste, as the post-hour is near. I kiss your hands and your cheeks.—Your devoted niece,
Berthe De X.
P. S.—I should add, however, by way of justification of French politeness, that our fellow-countrymen are, when traveling, models of good manners in comparison with the abominable English, who seem to have been brought up by stable-boys, so much do they take care not to incommode themselves in any way, while they always incommode their neighbors.
* * * * *
Madame de L. to Madame de X.
Les Fresnes, Saturday.
My Dear Child,—Many of the things you have said to me are very reasonable, but that does not prevent you from being wrong. Like you, I used formerly to feel very indignant at the impoliteness of men, who, as I supposed, constantly treated me with neglect; but, as I grew older and reflected on everything, putting aside coquetry, and observing things without taking any part in them myself, I perceived this much—that if men are not always polite, women are always indescribably rude.
We imagine that we should be permitted to do anything, my darling, and at the same time we consider that we have a right to the utmost respect, and in the most flagrant manner we commit actions devoid of that elementary good-breeding of which you speak with passion.
I find, on the contrary, that men have, for us, much consideration, as compared with our bearing towards them. Besides, darling, men must needs be, and are, what we make them. In a state of society, where women are all true gentlewomen, all men would become gentlemen.
Mark my words; just observe and reflect.
Look at two women meeting in the street. What an attitude each assumes towards the other! What disparaging looks! What contempt they throw into each glance! How they toss their heads while they inspect each other to find something to condemn! And, if the footpath is narrow, do you think one woman would make room for another, or will beg pardon as she sweeps by? Never! When two men jostle each other by accident in some narrow lane, each of them bows and at the same time gets out of the other's way, while we women press against each other stomach to stomach, face to face, insolently staring each other out of countenance.
Look at two women who are acquaintances meeting on a stair case before the drawing-room door of a friend of theirs to whom one has just paid a visit, and to whom the other is about to pay a visit. They begin to talk to each other, and block up the passage. If anyone happens to be coming up behind them, man or woman, do you imagine that they will put themselves half-an-inch out of their way? Never! never!
I was waiting myself, with my watch in my hands, one day last winter, at a certain drawing-room door. And behind two gentlemen were also waiting without showing any readiness to lose their temper, like me. The reason was that they had long grown accustomed to our unconscionable insolence.
The other day, before leaving Paris, I went to dine with no less a person than your husband in the Champs Elysees in order to enjoy the open air. Every table was occupied. The waiter asked us not to go, and there would soon be a vacant table.
At that moment, I noticed an elderly lady of noble figure, who, having paid the amount of her docket, seemed on the point of going away. She saw me, scanned me from head to foot, and did not budge. For more than a full quarter-of-an-hour she sat there, immovable, putting on her gloves, and calmly staring at those who were waiting like myself. Now, two young men who were just finishing their dinner, having seen me in their turn, quickly summoned the waiter in order to pay whatever they owed, and at once offered me their seats, even insisting on standing while waiting for their change. And, bear in mind, my fair niece, that I am no longer pretty, like you, but old and white-haired.
It is we (do you see?) who should be taught politeness, and the task would be such a difficult one that Hercules himself would not be equal to it. You speak to me about Etretat, and about the people who indulged in "tittle-tattle" along the beach of that delightful watering-place. It is a spot now lost to me, a thing of the past, but I found much amusement there in days gone by.
There were only a few of us, people in good society, really good society, and a few artists, and we all fraternized. We paid little attention to gossip in those days.
Well, as we had no insipid Casino, where people only gather for show, where they talk in whispers, where they dance stupidly, where they succeed in thoroughly boring one another, we sought some other way of passing our evenings pleasantly. Now, just guess what came into the head of one of our husbandry? Nothing less than to go and dance each night in one of the farm-houses in the neighborhood.
We started out in a group with a street-organ, generally played by Le Poittevin, the painter, with a cotton nightcap on his head. Two men carried lanterns. We followed in procession, laughing and chattering like a pack of fools.
We woke up the farmer and his servant-maids and laboring men. We got them to make onion-soup (horror!), and we danced under the apple-trees, to the sound of the barrel-organ. The cocks waking up began to crow in the darkness of the out-houses; the horses began prancing on the straw of their stables. The cool air of the country caressed our cheeks with the smell of grass and of new-mown hay.
How long ago it is! How long ago it is. It is thirty years since then!
I do not want you, my darling, to come for the opening of the hunting season. Why spoil the pleasure of our friends by inflicting on them fashionable toilets on this day of vigorous exercise in the country? This is the way, child, that men are spoiled. I embrace you.—Your old aunt
Genevieve De Z.
* * * * *
"Well, what do you say about women?"
"Well, there are no conjurors more subtle in taking us in at every available opportunity with or without reason, often for the sole pleasure of playing tricks on us. And they play these tricks with incredible simplicity, astonishing audacity, unparalleled ingenuity. They play tricks from morning till night, and they all do it—the most virtuous, the most upright, the most sensible of them. You may add that sometimes they are to some extent driven to do these things. Man has always idiotic fits of obstinacy and tyrannical desires. A husband is continually giving ridiculous orders in his own house. He is full of caprices; his wife plays on them even while she makes use of them for the purpose of deception. She persuades him that a thing costs so much because he would kick up a row if its price were higher. And she always extricates herself from the difficulty cunningly by a means so simple and so sly that we gape with amazement when by chance we discover them. We say to ourselves in a stupefied state of mind 'How is it we did not see this till now?'"
* * * * *
The man who uttered the words was an ex-Minister of the Empire, the Comte de L——, a thorough profligate, it was said, and a very accomplished gentleman. A group of young men were listening to him.
He went on:
"I was outwitted by an ordinary uneducated woman in a comic and thorough-going fashion. I will tell you about it for your instruction.
"I was at the time Minister for Foreign Affairs, and I was in the habit of taking a long walk every morning in the Champs Elysees. It was the month of May; I walked along, sniffing in eagerly that sweet odor of budding leaves.
"Ere long, I noticed, that I used to meet every day a charming little woman, one of those marvelous, graceful creatures, who bear the trade-mark of Paris. Pretty? Well, yes and no. Well-made? No, better than that: her waist was too slight, her shoulders too narrow, her breast too full, no doubt; but I prefer those exquisite human dolls to that great statuesque corpse, the Venus of Milo.
"And then this sort of woman trots along in an incomparable fashion, and the very rustle of her skirt fills the marrow of your bones with desire. She seemed to give me a side-glance as she passed me. But these women give you all sorts of looks—you never can tell....
"One morning, I saw her sitting on a bench with an open book between her hands. I came across, and sat down beside her. Five minutes later, we were friends. Then, each day, after the smiling salutation 'Good day, Madame,' 'Good day, Monsieur,' we began to chat. She told me that she was the wife of a Government clerk, that her life was a sad one, that in it pleasures were few and cares numerous, and a thousand other things.
"I told her who I was, partly through thoughtlessness, and partly perhaps through vanity. She pretended to be much astonished.
"Next day, she called at the Ministry to see me; and she came again there so often that the ushers, having their attention drawn to her appearance, used to whisper to one another, as soon as they saw her, the name with which they had christened her 'Madame Leon' that is my Christian name.
"For three months I saw her every morning without growing tired of her for a second, so well was she able incessantly to give variety and piquancy to her physical attractiveness. But one day I saw that her eyes were bloodshot and glowing with suppressed tears, that she could scarcely speak, so much was she preoccupied with secret troubles.
"I begged of her, I implored of her, to tell me what was the cause of her agitation.
"She faltered out at length with a shudder: 'I am—I am pregnant!'
"And she burst out sobbing. Oh! I made a dreadful grimace, and I have no doubt I turned pale, as men generally do at hearing such a piece of news. You cannot conceive what an unpleasant stab you feel in your breast at the announcement of an unexpected paternity of this kind. But you are sure to know it sooner or later. So, in my turn, I gasped: 'But—but—you are married, are you not?'
"She answered: 'Yes, but my husband has been away in Italy for the last two months, and he will not be back for some time.'
"I was determined at any cost to get out of my responsibility.
"I said: 'You must go and join him immediately.'
"She reddened to her very temples, and with downcast eyes, murmured: 'Yes—but—' She either dared not or would not finish the sentence.
"I understood, and I prudently enclosed her in an envelope the expenses of the journey.
* * * * *
"Eight days later, she sent me a letter from Genoa. The following week, I received one from Florence. Then letters reached me from Leghorn, Rome, and Naples.
"She said to me: 'I am in good health, my dear love, but I am looking frightful. I would not care to have you see me till it is all over; you would not love me. My husband suspects nothing. As his business in this country will require him to stay there much longer, I will not return to France till after my confinement.'
"And, at the end of about eight months, I received from Venice these few words: 'It is a boy.'
"Some time after, she suddenly entered my study one morning, fresher and prettier than ever, and flung herself into my arms.
"And our former connection was renewed.
"I left the Ministry, and she came to live in my house in the Rue de Grenelle. She often spoke to me about the child, but I scarcely listened to what she said about it; it did not concern me. Now and then I placed a rather large sum of money in her hand, saying: 'Put that by for him.'
"Two more years glided by; and she was more eager to tell me some news about the youngster—'about Leon.'
"Sometimes she would say in the midst of tears: 'You don't care about him; you don't even wish to see him. If you know what grief you cause me!'
"At last I was so much harassed by her that I promised, one day, to go, next morning, to the Champs Elysees, when she took the child there for an airing.
"But at the moment when I was leaving the house, I was stopped by a sudden apprehension. Man is weak and foolish. What if I were to get fond of this tiny being of whom I was the father—my son?
"I had my hat on my head, my gloves in my hands. I flung down the gloves on my desk, and my hat on a chair:
"No. Decidedly I will not go; it is wiser not to go.'
"My door flew open. My brother entered the room. He handed me an anonymous letter he had received that morning:
"'Warn the Comte de L——, your brother, that the little woman of the Rue Casette is impudently laughing at him. Let him make some inquiries about her.'
"I had never told anybody about this intrigue, and I now told my brother the history of it from the beginning to the end. I added:
"For my part, I don't want to trouble myself any further about the matter; but will you, like a good fellow, go and find out what you can about her?
"When my brother had left me, I said to myself: 'In what way can she have deceived me? She has other lovers? What does it matter to me? She is young, fresh, and pretty; I ask nothing more from her. She seems to love me, and as a matter of fact, she does not cost me much. Really, I don't understand this business.'
"My brother speedily returned. He had learned from the police all that was to be known about her husband: 'A clerk in the Home Department, of regular habits and good repute, and, moreover, a thinking man, but married to a very pretty woman, whose expenses seemed somewhat extravagant for her modest position.' That was all.
"Now, my brother having sought for her at her residence, and finding that she was gone out, succeeded, with the assistance of a little gold, in making the doorkeeper chatter: 'Madame D——, a very worthy woman, and her husband a very worthy man, not proud, not rich, but generous.'
"My brother asked for the sake of saying something:
"'How old is her little boy now?'
"'Why, she has not got any little boy, monsieur.'
"'What? Little Leon?'
"'No, monsieur, you are making a mistake.'
"'I mean the child she had while she was in Italy, two years ago?'
"'She has never been in Italy, monsieur; she has not quitted the house she is living in for the last five years.'
"My brother, in astonishment, questioned the doorkeeper anew, and then he pushed his investigation of the matter further. No child, no journey.
"I was prodigiously astonished, but without clearly understanding the final meaning of this comedy.
"'I want,' said I to him, 'to have my mind perfectly clear about the affair. I will ask her to come here to-morrow. You shall receive her instead of me. If she has deceived me, you will hand her these ten thousand francs, and I will never see her again. In fact, I am beginning to find I have had enough of her.'
"Would you believe it? I had been grieved the night before because I had a child by this woman; and I was now irritated, ashamed, wounded at having no more of her. I found myself free, released from all responsibility, from all anxiety, and yet I felt myself raging at the position in which I was placed.
"Next morning my brother awaited her in my study. She came in as quickly as usual, rushing towards him with outstretched arms, but when she saw who it was she at once drew back.
"He bowed, and excused himself.
"'I beg your pardon, madame, for being here instead of my brother, but he has authorized me to ask you for some explanations which he would find it painful to seek from you himself.'
"Then, fixing on her face a searching glance, he said abruptly:
"'We know you have not a child by him.'
"After the first moment of stupor, she regained her composure, took a seat, and gazed with a smile at this man who was sitting in judgment on her.
"She answered simply:
"'No; I have no child.'
"'We know also that you have never been in Italy.'
"This time she burst out laughing in earnest.
"'No, I have never been in Italy.'
"My brother, quite stunned, went on:
"'The Comte has requested me to give you this money, and tell you that it is all broken off.'
"She became serious again, calmly putting the money into her pocket, and, in an ingenuous tone asked:
"'And I am not, then, to see the Comte any more?'
"She appeared to be annoyed, and in a passionless voice she said:
"'So much the worse; I was very fond of him.'
"Seeing that she had made up her mind on the subject so resolutely, my brother, smiling in his turn, said to her:
"'Look here, now, tell me why you invented all this tricky yarn, complicating it by bringing in the sham journey to Italy and the child?'"
She gazed at my brother in amazement, as if he had asked her a stupid question, and replied:
"'I say! How spiteful you are! Do you believe a poor little woman of the people such as I am—nothing at all—could have for three years kept on my hands the Comte de L——, Minister, a great personage, a man of fashion, wealthy and seductive, if she had not taken a little trouble about it? Now it is all over. So much the worse. It couldn't last for ever. None the less I succeeded in doing it for three years. You will say many things to him on my behalf.'
"She rose up. My brother continued questioning her:
"'But—the child? You had one to show him?'
"'Certainly—my sister's child. She lent it to me. I'd bet it was she gave you the information.'
"'Good! And all those letters from Italy?'
"She sat down again so as to laugh at her ease.
"'Oh! those letters—well, they were a bit of poetry. The Comte was not a Minister of Foreign Affairs for nothing.'
"Oh! the other thing is my secret. I don't want to compromise anyone.'
"And bowing to him with a rather mocking smile, she left the room without any emotion, an actress who had played her part to the end."
And the Comte de L—— added by way of moral:
"So take care about putting your trust in that sort of turtle dove!"
* * * * *
Transcriber's Notes: Inconsistencies in hyphenation have been maintained.
Page 13, "pentrating" changed to "penetrating".
Page 25, "parishoner" changed to "parishioner".
Page 130, "consiousness" changed to "consciousness".
Page 133, "dinning" changed to "dining".
Page 178, "inns" changed to "ins".
Page 193, "delirous" changed to "delirious".
Page 218, Parenthesis added after "five thousand francs."
Page 283, Double quote added after "You will come to lunch. Won't you?"
Page 374, "moveover" changed to "moreover".
Ligatures removed in ASCII Version: S[oe]urs to Soeurs, C[oe]ur to Coeur.