Curving like a crescent moon, the little town of Etretat, with its white cliffs, its white, shingly beach and its blue sea, lay in the sunlight at high noon one July day. At either extremity of this crescent its two “gates,” the smaller to the right, the larger one at the left, stretched forth — one a dwarf and the other a colossal limb — into the water, and the bell tower, almost as tall as the cliff, wide below, narrowing at the top, raised its pointed summit to the sky.
On the sands beside the water a crowd was seated watching the bathers. On the terrace of, the Casino another crowd, seated or walking, displayed beneath the brilliant sky a perfect flower patch of bright costumes, with red and blue parasols embroidered with large flowers in silk.
On the walk at the end of the terrace, other persons, the restful, quiet ones, were walking slowly, far from the dressy throng.
A young man, well known and celebrated as a painter, Jean Sumner, was walking with a dejected air beside a wheeled chair in which sat a young woman, his wife. A manservant was gently pushing the chair, and the crippled woman was gazing sadly at the brightness of the sky, the gladness of the day, and the happiness of others.
They did not speak. They did not look at each other.
“Let us stop a while,” said the young woman.
They stopped, and the painter sat down on a camp stool that the servant handed him.
Those who were passing behind the silent and motionless couple looked at them compassionately. A whole legend of devotion was attached to them. He had married her in spite of her infirmity, touched by her affection for him, it was said.
Not far from there, two young men were chatting, seated on a bench and looking out into the horizon.
“No, it is not true; I tell you that I am well acquainted with Jean Sumner.”
“But then, why did he marry her? For she was a cripple when she married, was she not?”
“Just so. He married her — he married her — just as every one marries, parbleu! because he was an idiot!”
“But why — but why, my friend? There is no why. People do stupid things just because they do stupid things. And, besides, you know very well that painters make a specialty of foolish marriages. They almost always marry models, former sweethearts, in fact, women of doubtful reputation, frequently. Why do they do this? Who can say? One would suppose that constant association with the general run of models would disgust them forever with that class of women. Not at all. After having posed them they marry them. Read that little book, so true, so cruel and so beautiful, by Alphonse Daudet: ‘Artists’ Wives.’
“In the case of the couple you see over there the accident occurred in a special and terrible manner. The little woman played a frightful comedy, or, rather, tragedy. She risked all to win all. Was she sincere? Did she love Jean? Shall we ever know? Who is able to determine precisely how much is put on and how much is real in the actions of a woman? They are always sincere in an eternal mobility of impressions. They are furious, criminal, devoted, admirable and base in obedience to intangible emotions. They tell lies incessantly without intention, without knowing or understanding why, and in spite of it all are absolutely frank in their feelings and sentiments, which they display by violent, unexpected, incomprehensible, foolish resolutions which overthrow our arguments, our customary poise and all our selfish plans. The unforeseenness and suddenness of their determinations will always render them undecipherable enigmas as far as we are concerned. We continually ask ourselves:
“‘Are they sincere? Are they pretending?’
“But, my friend, they are sincere and insincere at one and the same time, because it is their nature to be extremists in both and to be neither one nor the other.
“See the methods that even the best of them employ to get what they desire. They are complex and simple, these methods. So complex that we can never guess at them beforehand, and so simple that after having been victimized we cannot help being astonished and exclaiming: ‘What! Did she make a fool of me so easily as that?’
“And they always succeed, old man, especially when it is a question of getting married.
“But this is Sumner’s story:
“The little woman was a model, of course. She posed for him. She was pretty, very stylish-looking, and had a divine figure, it seems. He fancied that he loved her with his whole soul. That is another strange thing. As soon as one likes a woman one sincerely believes that they could not get along without her for the rest of their life. One knows that one has felt the same way before and that disgust invariably succeeded gratification; that in order to pass one’s existence side by side with another there must be not a brutal, physical passion which soon dies out, but a sympathy of soul, temperament and temper. One should know how to determine in the enchantment to which one is subjected whether it proceeds from the physical, from a certain sensuous intoxication, or from a deep spiritual charm.
“Well, he believed himself in love; he made her no end of promises of fidelity, and was devoted to her.
“She was really attractive, gifted with that fashionable flippancy that little Parisians so readily affect. She chattered, babbled, made foolish remarks that sounded witty from the manner in which they were uttered. She used graceful gesture’s which were calculated to attract a painter’s eye. When she raised her arms, when she bent over, when she got into a carriage, when she held out her hand to you, her gestures were perfect and appropriate.
“For three months Jean never noticed that, in reality, she was like all other models.
“He rented a little house for her for the summer at Andresy.
“I was there one evening when for the first time doubts came into my friend’s mind.
“As it was a beautiful evening we thought we would take a stroll along the bank of the river. The moon poured a flood of light on the trembling water, scattering yellow gleams along its ripples in the currents and all along the course of the wide, slow river.
“We strolled along the bank, a little enthused by that vague exaltation that these dreamy evenings produce in us. We would have liked to undertake some wonderful task, to love some unknown, deliciously poetic being. We felt ourselves vibrating with raptures, longings, strange aspirations. And we were silent, our beings pervaded by the serene and living coolness of the beautiful night, the coolness of the moonlight, which seemed to penetrate one’s body, permeate it, soothe one’s spirit, fill it with fragrance and steep it in happiness.
“Suddenly Josephine (that is her name) uttered an exclamation:
“‘Oh, did you see the big fish that jumped, over there?’
“He replied without looking, without thinking:
“She was angry.
“‘No, you did not see it, for your back was turned.’
“‘Yes, that’s true. It is so delightful that I am not thinking of anything.’
“She was silent, but at the end of a minute she felt as if she must say something and asked:
“‘Are you going to Paris to-morrow?’
“‘I do not know,’ he replied.
“She was annoyed again.
“‘Do you think it is very amusing to walk along without speaking? People talk when they are not stupid.’
“He did not reply. Then, feeling with her woman’s instinct that she was going to make him angry, she began to sing a popular air that had harassed our ears and our minds for two years:
“‘Je regardais en fair.’
“‘Please keep quiet.’
“She replied angrily:
“‘Why do you wish me to keep quiet?’
“‘You spoil the landscape for us!’ he said.
“Then followed a scene, a hateful, idiotic scene, with unexpected reproaches, unsuitable recriminations, then tears. Nothing was left unsaid. They went back to the house. He had allowed her to talk without replying, enervated by the beauty of the scene and dumfounded by this storm of abuse.
“Three months later he strove wildly to free himself from those invincible and invisible bonds with which such a friendship chains our lives. She kept him under her influence, tyrannizing over him, making his life a burden to him. They quarreled continually, vituperating and finally fighting each other.
“He wanted to break with her at any cost. He sold all his canvases, borrowed money from his friends, realizing twenty thousand francs (he was not well known then), and left them for her one morning with a note of farewell.
“He came and took refuge with me.
“About three o’clock that afternoon there was a ring at the bell. I went to the door. A woman sprang toward me, pushed me aside, came in and went into my atelier. It was she!
“He had risen when he saw her coming.’
“She threw the envelope containing the banknotes at his feet with a truly noble gesture and said in a quick tone:
“‘There’s your money. I don’t want it!’
“She was very pale, trembling and ready undoubtedly to commit any folly. As for him, I saw him grow pale also, pale with rage and exasperation, ready also perhaps to commit any violence.
“‘What do you want?’
“‘I do not choose to be treated like a common woman. You implored me to accept you. I asked you for nothing. Keep me with you!’
“He stamped his foot.
“‘No, that’s a little too much! If you think you are going —’
“I had seized his arm.
“‘Keep still, Jean . . . Let me settle it.’
“I went toward her and quietly, little by little, I began to reason with her, exhausting all the arguments that are used under similar circumstances. She listened to me, motionless, with a fixed gaze, obstinate and silent.
“Finally, not knowing what more to say, and seeing that there would be a scene, I thought of a last resort and said:
“‘He loves you still, my dear, but his family want him to marry some one, and you understand —’
“She gave a start and exclaimed:
“‘Ah! Ah! Now I understand:
“And turning toward him, she said:
“‘You are — you are going to get married?’
“He replied decidedly” ‘Yes.’
“She took a step forward.
“‘If you marry, I will kill myself! Do you hear?’
“He shrugged his shoulders and replied:
“‘Well, then kill yourself!’
“She stammered out, almost choking with her violent emotion:
“‘What do you say? What do you say? What do you say? Say it again!’
“‘Well, then kill yourself if you like!’
“With her face almost livid, she replied:
“‘Do not dare me! I will throw myself from the window!’
“He began to laugh, walked toward the window, opened it, and bowing with the gesture of one who desires to let some one else precede him, he said:
“‘This is the way. After you!’
“She looked at him for a second with terrible, wild, staring eyes. Then, taking a run as if she were going to jump a hedge in the country, she rushed past me and past him, jumped over the sill and disappeared.
“I shall never forget the impression made on me by that open window after I had seen that body pass through it to fall to the ground. It appeared to me in a second to be as large as the heavens and as hollow as space. And I drew back instinctively, not daring to look at it, as though I feared I might fall out myself.
“Jean, dumfounded, stood motionless.
“They brought the poor girl in with both legs broken. She will never walk again.
“Jean, wild with remorse and also possibly touched with gratitude, made up his mind to marry her.
“There you have it, old man.”
It was growing dusk. The young woman felt chilly and wanted to go home, and the servant wheeled the invalid chair in the direction of the village. The painter walked beside his wife, neither of them having exchanged a word for an hour.
This story appeared in Le Gaulois, December 17, 1883.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53