Works, by Guy de Maupassant

Jeroboam

Anyone who said, or even insinuated, that the Reverend William Greenfield, Vicar of St. Sampson’s, Tottenham, did not make his wife Anna perfectly happy, would certainly have been very malicious. In their twelve years of married life, he had honored her with twelve children, and could anybody decently ask anything more of a saintly man?

Saintly to heroism in truth! For his wife Anna, who was endowed with invaluable virtues, which made her a model among wives and a paragon among mothers, had not been equally endowed physically, for, in one word, she was hideous. Her hair, which was coarse though it was thin, was the color of the national half-and-half, but of thick half-and-half which looked as if it had been already swallowed several times, and her complexion, which was muddy and pimply, looked as if it were covered with sand mixed with brickdust. Her teeth, which were long and protruding, seemed as if they were about to start out of their sockets in order to escape from that mouth with scarcely any lips, whose sulphurous breath had turned them yellow. They were evidently suffering from bile.

Her china-blue eyes looked vaguely, one very much to the right and the other very much to the left, with a divergent and frightened squint; no doubt in order that they might not see her nose, of which they felt ashamed. And they were quite right! Thin, soft, long, pendant, sallow, and ending in a violet knob, it irresistibly reminded those who saw it of something which cannot be mentioned except in a medical treatise. Her body, through the inconceivable irony of nature, was at the same time thin and flabby, wooden and chubby, without having either the elegance of slimness or the rounded gracefulness of stoutness. It might have been taken for a body which had formerly been adipose, but which had now grown thin, while the covering had remained floating on the framework.

She was evidently nothing but skin and bones, but then she had too many bones and too little skin.

It will be seen that the reverend gentleman had done his duty, his whole duty, more than his duty, in sacrificing a dozen times on this altar. Yes, a dozen times bravely and loyally! A dozen times, and his wife could not deny it nor dispute the number, because the children were there to prove it. A dozen times, and not one less!

And alas! not once more; and that was the reason why, in spite of appearances, Mrs. Anna Greenfield ventured to think, in the depths of her heart, that the Reverend William Greenfield, Vicar of St. Sampson’s, Tottenham, had not made her perfectly happy; and she thought so all the more as, for four years now, she had been obliged to renounce all hope of that annual sacrifice, which was so easy and so fugitive formerly, but which had now fallen into disuse. In fact, at the birth of the twelfth child, the reverend gentleman had expressly said to her:

“God has greatly blessed our union, my dear Anna. We have reached the sacred number of the twelve tribes of Israel, and were we now to persevere in the works of the flesh, it would be mere debauchery, and I cannot suppose that you would wish me to end my exemplary life in lustful practices.”

His wife blushed and looked down, and the holy man, with the legitimate pride of virtue which is its own reward, audibly thanked Heaven that he was “not as other men are.”

A model among wives and the paragon of mothers, Anna lived with him for four years on those terms, without complaining to anyone, and contented herself by praying fervently to God that He would mercifully inspire her husband with the desire to begin a second series of the twelve tribes. At times even, in order to make her prayers more efficacious, she tried to compass that end by culinary means. She spared no pains, and gorged the reverend gentleman with highly-seasoned dishes. Hare soup, ox-tails stewed in sherry, the green fat in turtle soup, stewed mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, celery, and horse-radish; hot sauces, truffles, hashes with wine and cayenne pepper in them, curried lobsters, pies made of cocks’ combs, oysters, and the soft roe of fish; and all these dishes were washed down by strong beer and generous wines, Scotch ale, Burgundy, dry champagne, brandy, whiskey and gin; in a word, by that numberless array of alcoholic drinks with which the English people love to heat their blood.

And, as a matter of fact, the reverend gentleman’s blood became very heated, as was shown by his nose and cheeks, but in spite of this, the powers above were inexorable, and he remained quite indifferent as regards his wife, who was unhappy and thoughtful at the sight of that protruding nasal appendage, which, alas! was alone in its glory.

She became thinner, and at the same time, flabbier than ever, and almost began to lose her trust in God, when, suddenly, she had an inspiration. Was it not, perhaps, the work of devil?

She did not care to inquire too closely into the matter, as she thought it a very good idea, and it was this:

“Go to the Universal Exhibition in Paris, and there, perhaps, you will discover the secret to make yourself loved.”

Decidedly luck favored her, for her husband immediately gave her permission to go, and as soon as she got into the Esplanade des Invalides, she saw the Algerian dancers, and she said to herself.

“Surely this would inspire William with the desire to be the father of the thirteenth tribe!”

But how could she manage to get him to be present at such abominable orgies? For she could not hide from herself that it was an abominable exhibition, and she knew how scandalized he would be at their voluptuous movements. She had no doubt that the devil had led her there, but she could not take her eyes off the scene, and it gave her an idea; and so for nearly a fortnight you might have seen the poor, unattractive woman sitting, and attentively and curiously watching the swaying hips of the Algerian women. She was learning.

The very evening of her return to London, she rushed into her husband’s bedroom, disrobed herself in an instant, except for a thin gauze covering, and for the first time in her life appeared before him in all the ugliness of her semi-nudity.

“Come, come,” the saintly man stammered out, “are you — are you mad, Anna! What demon has possessed you? Why inflict the disgrace of such a spectacle on me?”

But she did not listen to him, and did not reply, but suddenly she also began to sway her hips about like an almah1. The reverend gentleman could not believe his eyes, and in his stupefaction, he did not think of covering them with his hands or even of shutting them. He looked at her, stupefied and dumbfounded, a prey to the hypnotism of ugliness. He watched her as she came forward and retired, and went up and down, as she skipped and wriggled, and threw herself into extraordinary attitudes. For a long time he sat motionless and almost unable to speak. He only said in a low voice:

1 Egyptian dancing girl. — TRANSLATOR.]

“Oh, Lord! To think that twelve times! . . . twelve times! . . . a whole dozen!”

However, she fell into a chair, panting and worn out, and said to herself:

“Thank Heaven! William looks like he used to do formerly on the days that he honored me. Thank Heaven! There will be a thirteenth tribe, and then a fresh series of tribes, for William is very methodical in all that he does!”

But William merely took a blanket off the bed and threw it over her, saying in a voice of thunder:

“Your name is no longer Anna, Mrs. Greenfield; for the future you shall be called Jezabel. I only regret that I have twelve times mingled my blood with your impure blood.” And then, seized by pity, he added: “If you were only in a state of inebriety, of intoxication, I could excuse you.”

“Well, yes, yes!” she exclaimed, repentantly, “yes, I am in that state . . . Forgive me, William — forgive a poor drunken woman!”

“I will forgive you, Anna,” he replied, and he gave her a wash-hand basin, saying: “Cold water will do you good, and when your head is clear, remember the lesson which you must learn from this occurrence.”

“What lesson?” she asked, humbly.

“That people ought never to depart from their usual habits.”

“But why, then, William,” she asked, timidly, “have you changed your habits?”

“Hold your tongue!” he cried — “hold your tongue, Jezabel! Have you not got over your intoxication yet? For twelve years I certainly followed the divine precept: increase and multiply, once a year. But since then, I have grown accustomed to something else, and I do not wish to alter my habits.”

And the Reverend William Greenfield, Vicar of St. Sampson’s, Tottenham, the saintly man whose blood was inflamed by heating food and liquor, whose ears were like full-blown poppies and who had a nose like a tomato, left his wife and, as had been his habit for four years, went to make love to Polly, the servant.

“Now, Polly,” he said, “you are a clever girl, and I mean, through you, to teach Mrs. Greenfield a lesson she will never forget. I will try and see what I can do for you.”

And in order to this, he called her his little Jezabel, and said to her, with an unctuous smile:

“Call me Jeroboam! You don’t understand why? Neither do I, but that does not matter. Take off all your things, Polly, and show yourself to Mrs. Greenfield.”

The servant did as she was bidden, and the result was that Mrs. Greenfield never again hinted to her husband the desirability of laying the foundation of a thirteenth tribe.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09